Sunday, June 26, 2011

An Experience: Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle: NYC Boutique

These days, it's rare that I get the chance to wander around the city discovering or even rediscovering places. That's why the moments leading up to my visit to Frédéric Malle's Boutique were near blissful. I had somehow managed to exit the chaos of my (sweet) home, get in a cab and before I knew it I was on 61st Street with a few minutes to spare before meeting up with friends. It was a sunny day and it was early too, not many people out yet. Shops were getting ready for the day. As I walked by Creed its doors were literally open and their Original Vetiver, in its hunter green bottle was sitting in the window, ready. I approached 70th Street and without thinking turned left. The Frick. I put both hands on its tall black iron gates and and took a long hard look at its manicured garden with its lush water pond filled with waterlilies.

Upon entering Malle's Boutique, perfume was not the first thing on my mind. Walking into the store you are confronted by three tall glass columns. Each column has two doors that sit on top of each other vertically, and they can open separately. What are these? Well, turns out that these cylinders are an optimal way to smell perfume, and it is one way that perfumers present their perfumes to clients. The perfume is sprayed inside the column then the door is closed for a moment and then soon after your head can go inside the top door to experience the full range of the fragrance. Believe me it works.

Malle commissions perfumers to make perfume. The perfumers get to do what they want without limitation, then he works as an editor in the final stages with the perfumer. 

As I settle in, I begin to feel what might be important to Frédéric Malle. The Boutique is less a boutique and more like an artist's studio or perhaps a small art gallery. There is nothing sterile about it; Malle wants us to have an intimate experience. The perfumes are displayed in a way that makes them appear as if they are paintings hanging on a wall. Maybe we should see ourselves as collectors? There are no counters with salespeople standing behind them. Black and white photos of perfumers, I think I counted 12, who have created the fragrances hang on the wall. Most of them are still with us and one that I recognized is gone. So you can kind of create a flow, go to the Column and smell Le Parfum de Therese, then you walk over to the photo of Roudnitska (The Nose who made Therese for his wife), and look and wonder about him. Then you walk away and turn your head to right and there is a wooden carving above your head, or perhaps Margaret will grace you with her incredible detailed stories about what you are smelling. Or perhaps she will want to know what perfumes are interesting to you. It's fun, no?  Editions de Parfums is of course selling exquisite perfume with a few select ancillary products too, but inside its walls, if you seek it, you will find history, art, story, and aesthetic, all strongly woven together. Malle is not selling a glossy lifestyle the same way a clothing designer might, he allows us to wander and possibly understand the mind of perfumery, the work it takes, his love of perfumers, and with some of his perfumes, a desire to recall his scent memories. In a sense, the Boutique represents all that goes into making perfume.

Photo: Hanya Holm, Bennington School of Dance, 1938.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Snapshot 2: Dad and Acqua di Cuba

Today, I find myself thinking about Mint Juleps, especially the ones I made for my father. First I would prepare the simple syrup, then muddle the mint and add it to the syrup to create an infusion. Let it sit a bit. Pour the bourbon over crushed ice and slowly add the minty sweet syrup. With glass in hand, I would then hand my Dad a sprig of mint and he would neatly place it behind his ear, as his Father did. From a distance, sipping his drink he looked completely Roman. 

I'm looking forward to Santa Maria Novella, Acqua di Cuba with its boozy quality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Sketch: Scents and Sensibilities: The Invisible Language of Smell

I often think of  myself as a part of a tiny flock of kindred souls who walks around thinking about what and how we smell. I never would have imagined that a mass of humanity would want to go to an auditorium on a Saturday afternoon in NYC to hear various scientists speak about the fine tuning of smelling.  However, I was wrong. When I entered the auditorium at the New School there was a full house of eager people wanting to attend the World Science Festival. I was handed a program and a white envelope (care of IFF) with 4 smelling cards inside, and I quickly found a seat between two seemingly scientific couples, and we were off. There were 4 panelists, 3 women and 1 man.

I immediately wanted to hear more of what Sissel Tolaas had to say.

The program states that Sissel Tolaas's work focuses on smell, language, and communication while spanning science, art and industry. She has a lot to say about humans and their relationship to smell. When it comes to smell she prefers the perspective that there are no good or bad smells, just lots to smell, and Ms. Tolass says that we destroy our chances to smell everyday by living in our overly sanitizing-hand gel, deodorized and perfumed culture. She wants to bring reality back to what we smell, and from what I can tell she is focused primarily on our bodies as a source. I agree, let’s know what we actually smell like before we start dispersing all kinds of stuff on our bodies. She has studied and captured men’s sweat, actually men who suffer from panic attacks to see if she could detect what fear smells like. She then numbered and bottled their smell and somehow painted it on a MIT gallery wall so folks could come and smell them. When she did the same exhibit in China, Tolaas described a woman that came back every day to smell #8, she had fallen in love with the smell of a very particular sweaty panic attack ridden man.

Also enlightening on the panel were: Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist, who spoke about the potential of the science of smell, which is only been around for a couple of decades; Consuelo De Moraes, a biologist and ecologist who studies the complex role of chemistry in interactions among plants and other organisms. Yes, plants can smell!, Avery Gilbert, a smell scientist, entrepreneur and author, and lastly Juju Chang the very polished moderator of 20/20 TV news fame. When Sissel began to talk about how she was able to make human cheese  (as a starter she used mucous and other living body secretions) Juju just couldn’t take it, and kept on responding the way she said her 3 year old would, she repeated in her best 3 year old voice,  “that’s digusting, that's digusting, that's digusting".  Somehow I don't think that was the response Sissel was looking for.

I will leave you with the events Opening remarks and what was on our scent cards.

The Olfactory Bulb is the only part of the brain that sits outside of the skull. So our sense of smell is just sitting there waiting to trigger and fire. It is primal and evocative, yet we need to find a way to talk about it. Olfaction is stored in the subconscious. Smell is emotional, expressive and intuitive, but it’s not all about emotion it’s cognitive too, comparative and analytical. Smell is complex.

Yes it is.

The entire audience smelled these cards together: 1. Swiss Cheese/Human Feet, 2. Chicken Soup/dry powdered, 3. Musk/Galaxolide, 4. Tiari (a Tahitian flower)

    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    The Different Company: Vetiver Proud and Sel de Vétiver

    Oddly enough, it is the root of the Vetiver plant, not its leaves that are distilled and ultimately used in perfumery. Vetiver is dry, dusty, and reminiscent of earth that is parched. It is rooty, if you will and twiggy like the root that it comes from. Vetiver is a basenote that helps create depth in a fragrance, and at the same time its dry woody character has a way of rising to the top of fragrance. Surprisingly, it has a menthol component to it that's spicy and green. When left to linger on the blotter I captured smokiness and a slight petrol note that was quite perplexing.

    The Different Company's Sel de Vétiver is much more intriguing than perplexing. I can feel the hand of the perfumer as I experience this perfume. At first, I imagine the many hues of grey that you can see when you look at a black and white photograph. So yes, if Sel de Vétiver was a color it would be grey, a purposeful and almost  shimmering grey, not a pale or shy grey. The hit of Vetiver is immediate, but I am also taken by Sel's lushness that is salty and almost briny. I picture a hazy day at the beach, the grey clouds are hanging low and the humidity is heavy in the air and without you knowing it the atmosphere settles on the skin, perhaps you take a swim in the sea and as the saltwater dries on your skin it leaves a delicately laced crystal pattern on the skin. At the heart of Sel de Vétiver is Ylang Ylang, a soft white floral that lovingly hovers and lends a ethereal quality to the juice. The drydown comes alive with a Grapefruit note that cuts through the Vetiver in a magic Houdini moment. I thought citrus was a topnote, how did she do that. With one last inhalation I feel my vertebrae stack up tall and I feel, well, proud.

    In Chandler Burr's book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, Céline Ellena talks about growing up with her father and grandfather and the subtle and not so subtle ways that family knowledge, culture, and beliefs, are handed down from generation to generation. Her beautiful description of all that went into making Sel de Vétiver continues to resonate; She clearly states that Sel is not a marine or ozonic fragrance, rather it's a fragrance about the skin, specifically the taste of salt on the skin. 

    She captured this and much more.     

    Photo: Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika