Monday, June 27, 2011

Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums Portrait of a Lady

On May 25, 2011, the US FiFi Awards Perfume Extraordinaire division crowned Untitled by Maison Martin Margiela (L'Oreal / Givaudan) the blind test winning 'juice' of the year (and by blind test, I mean the judges weren't told the names of the perfumes they were asked to smell; the names of the 5 finalists were announced at the FiFi). Since attending the FiFi, I have made it my mission to smell all 5 finalists to see what qualifies as "craftsmanship, aesthetic beauty and quality". So far, I agree they are all noteworthy 2010 launches. Eva Longoria (Takasago) is an exceptional perfume in its light, carefree, casually beautiful scent genre. Voyage d'Hermès (Beauté Prestige International) is a great showcase for aesthetic sense as well as a uniquely creative take on the eau de cologne. Untitled was a terrific effort put into a retro 1970s reproduction "jus" packaged with slick avant garde imagery. It is perhaps something to note that the winning juice is the most quiet of the bunch I've smelled; actually, strength-wise, everything takes a backseat to Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums Portrait of a Lady, the fourth Perfume Extraordinaire Finalist I will review. (Added on July 17, 2011: Here's my review of Odin 04 Petrana (Drom Fragrances International))

By the way, I'm not sure about this, so don't quote me, but when the Fragrance Foundation says the Perfume Extraordinaire Award honors the Essential Oil Company, I think they might mean the Flavor and Fragrance Company that is honored by being nominated for their best "juice", not literally essential oil producers, or the companies that specialize only in raw materials. Do you know how some stores sell fragrance oil as "essential oil"? Yeah, that always gets me.

Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady is a Chypre-Floral Oriental, and although it is not a unique scent, it is a Holy Mother of God Perfume. I think it's the type of Chypre most Chypre lovers don't like, because it leans towards the sweet ambery Oriental side, like Paloma Picasso (1984). I think the combination of two now-separated genres smells naturally harmonious together, like French perfumes of old whose names are obscure yet fanciful, whose tiny miniature bottles are intricate glass designs. After the Chypre was isolated, refined and institutionalized, anything crossing the line might have begun to seem unpure. I think, therefore, that Portrait of a Lady is a "vulgar" Chypre to many. But that is just one interpretation, and only my first impression of it.

I really like this scent, a seductive, rich and spicy aroma; it's reminiscent of one of my favorite rose amber patchouli blends, Jil Sander No.4, but it's most similar to Van Cleef & Arpels Gem (1987), a "righteous" shoulder-padded power-patchouli Chypre-Fruity Animalic with tons of scintillating berry liqueur, a magnificent, velvety rich, voluptuous heart of rose, and warm, ambery notes to carmelize that leathery patch base to a rich and powerfully perfumey, if somewhat funky, aroma, funky enough to border on Vivienne Westwood Boudoir territory (almost; it is obviously better quality than the VW, but the VW is more risque as a composition). I can also compare it to Emanuel Ungaro Diva, Serge Lutens Chypre Rouge, and to a lesser degree, Cartier Le Baiser du Dragon (this is really powdery on top of everything else it is, and I mean everything, including boozy with a hint of raunchy stewed fruits like Cassini (1990), the most powerful 'Chypre-Fruity-Animalic Floral Oriental of all, which, to my bemusement, is currently being sold again at Neiman Marcus).

Because the scent emanating from the unopened sample vial was so strong, I decided to pit it against Eva Longoria to see which scent had more punch; Frederic Malle's Lady won. The actual juice is so strong, I feel it needs to be worn two dots at a time as parfum, even though it's a liberally sprayable Eau de Parfum (I guess climate will determine if it needs to be sprayed...). By the sound of it, you might think it's a tasteless, bawdy scent, but it is every bit as refined and smooth as can be, in a boozy-perfumey way, but also like a honeyed, warm breeze, even with all its complexity and density. Whether the "purest" Chypre form is considered these days to be a classic bergamot-oakmoss blend, a bitter, green Aldehydic one, a dark, angular, ultramodern linear leather, fruity or patchouli-based, I don't know and don't care - but a more charismatic Chypre would be a rare find. Portrait of a Lady is an attention grabber: daringly dramatic, romantically rosy and brilliantly (in a faceted round shape) scintillating, like a fragrance launched by a jewellery company. It was composed by Dominique Ropion, a master perfumer behind so many past and current loves: Frédéric Malle Une Fleur de Cassie, Carnal Flower, Escada Sexy Graffiti, Givenchy Very Irrésistible (2003 with Sophie Labbe & Carlos Benaïm), Amarige (1991) and Ysatis (1984).

The dry down is musky, almost Estée Lauder Knowing-like with its thick, clingy, animalic carmelized Chypre-Oriental amberchouli (could this be Ambroxan I'm smelling?). Do you know Ungaro Diva or Carolina Herrera? They're gorgeous, but with so much indole happening, I find myself thinking, "gahhh!". Portrait gives off a taste of these, plus Halston-Cabochard, that unsweet, leathery woods family that manages to smell so seriously perfumey, it's almost a perfume stereotype. Portrait of a Lady can steal any show with its glorious timbre / texture and perfuminess (complexity of notes) that can register as smelling "expensive", fit for a romantic heroine. I believe Untitled was more unique in concept (it is a conceptual art-fashion perfume launch, not unlike my Pink Manhattan :-)); still, if I were judging, I probably would have chosen Portrait of a Lady for quality as a perfume alone, for compositional perfection regardless of style preference. How ironic it is that some of those high quality notes I'm smelling are fragrance, not essential, oils.

Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady is named after the late 19th century novel of the same name (The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James). According to an entry on Wikipedia, "This was the uncompromising story of the free-spirited Isabel losing her freedom — despite (or because of) suddenly coming into a great deal of money — and getting "ground in the very mill of the conventional."" I have not read this book, so just based on the reviews and this fragrance, it seems to me Portrait of a Lady is the olfactory story of how a free-spirited ("bohemian" = woody-ambery? Berry-scented incense?) Oriental perfume came into Green money to become a noble Chypre, only to learn the grass isn't so green on the other side, what with so much earthy patchouli (patchoulol?) taking over her life! Maybe the point is that the Chypre-Oriental is a particularly complex, tempestuous blend that makes for a sensational story if not the most practical everyday fragrance. Oh, but who needs practical when you can smell like the best, most hedonistic French-Arabian (traditional attar-like in richness) Greco-Roman (traditional chypre from the island of Cyprus) style spicy traditional Romantic Rose perfume money can buy?

Image: Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film, The Portrait of a Lady