Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A strange Virgin and her signature perfume

I cannot remember where and when I first met her, this strange Virgin with child surrounded by angels, but I do come across her in different scenarios, often entirely unexpected. The last time I saw her, as part of an installation on screen and not in person as she had been on loan to Madrid, was at the Dries van Noten Inspirations exhibition in Paris (which I hereby also highly recommend). She has always been a muse to artists and designers  and the late Alexander McQueen used her as an inspiration for his last, unfinished, collection.  It's not surprising, just look at her:

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and child surrounded by angels, around 1452, image via wikipedia

Painted by the French artist Jean Fouquet in the 1450's, it is a piece of art that most people describe as surprisingly modern and of disturbing beauty. Her alien paleness, emphasized by the high hairline, is part of the beauty ideal of the time and even the unnatural breasts, poking out under her armpits like perfectly shaped marble balls, can be seen in many virgin and child paintings. It's the colour and texture composition that I find so striking, and if you will, modern about this Madonna. Her white figure is set against a group of angels in red and blue, arranged in a strange Tessellation style pattern reminding of H.W.Escher. Mastering the art of perspective was still a bit hit and miss in the early Renaissance, but this doesn't look like it was done due to lack of skill, it's a very deliberate effect. Despite them forming a background pattern, the chubby little angels are very three dimensional, especially the red ones.  And, ever so slightly disturbing: they are covered in a glossy texture that is not dissimilar to latex. In contrast to the naughty cherubim the virgin has almost no real texture, Fouquet didn't render her skin very differently from the folds of her cape, making her appear like an alabaster statue in her own painting, highlighting her otherworldly-ness. A lot of the paintings startling allure is probably due to the mixture of realistic (baby Jesus and the virgin's face) and iconic (her figure and costume) elements and it's certainly a great example of a dualism in style in early Northern Renaissance art. Also not untypical for the time, she is depicted as a Queen more than a  mother and art historians are now pretty certain that Fouquet used Agnes Sorel, favourite mistress of King Charles VII of France as his inspiration and model. Being regarded as the most beautiful woman of her time, he certainly did her honour. 

And because I love the painting and the myth that surrounds her I now try to find a perfume that best captures this 15th century virginal pop art queen. My first idea is Alexander McQueen's violet number MyQueen,  for the connection mentioned above. It has the edge I'm looking for and a sharp hairspray weirdness at some point during the wear, but it's altogether a bit too one dimensional. I went back to the Relique d'Amour from Oriza and a few other incense-strong perfumes  to see if that would work for her, but they either lacked the modern/alien aspect I was looking for or were too   masculine. Serge Lutens' La Vierge en Fer, an interesting Lily, is, while certainly more modern, too sweet and innocent. It's interesting how, when searching for a specific scent, the name, the packaging, the whole brand identity suddenly becomes such an integral part of it. This virgin's perfume has to be daring, a bit alien, cold but sensual and definitely modern, futuristic even.  A little bit sweetness is fine and incense and lilies would be perfect. And the brand has to be daring too. Bold. And preferably French. Don't ask me why, it just has. 

Perfume brands don't get much bolder than Etat libre d'Orange, and even their logo goes terribly well with my chosen artwork. But I'm not all that familiar with their scents apart from a few exceptions, and was also in need of some more ideas. It was my perfume friend Nick who helped me out here. I gave him a few hints about the nature of the fragrance I was looking for and he made two suggestions: Comme des Garcons 2011 EdP, to which I will come back later,  and for the land of Orange he named Charogne

Charogne had featured in a "skanky scents" Perfume Lovers London event held by the very same Nick not too long ago, and I remember liking it a lot. On the right side of wearable, with some weird sensual undertones, a bit rubbery. When I test it now in connection with the artwork seeks perfume quest it behaves even better than expected. A strong lily, jasmine accord is combined with a leather/rubber note, incense and a lot of creamy and not overly sweet vanilla. I can for the life of me not see why anyone would find this offensive. It's daring, I admit, but a lot of the provocation comes from the name. And even that doesn't hold when you look into the inspiration for it:

 Beaudelaire's poem Une Charogne 

The perfume evokes the beauty of decay. And when you see flowers in their very last stages before they wilt and wither away completely, you understand the intent. However, as much as I love the perfume - particularly how  the lily is partnered with the rubber  - it's not quite right for the virgin. It embraces and celebrates the cycle of life and death, and in doing so it's all too human and grounded to our bodily ways. 

So I go back to Nick's first choice, the Comme des Garcons 2011. The one in the wonky, melted pear shaped bottle that won't stand up. And at first sniff I know that this is it. This is the scent that the painting should give off, the virgin's signature perfume.
Ingredient lists can be very boring reads, but this one certainly isn't: Industrial glue and brown scotch tape, aldehydes, saffron, styrax, lilac and rubber? I assume there is also a long list of fluffy and nice smelling things which didn't make it into the press material because they are just...well, boring, but there has to be a reason why this actually smells so great. I get a lot of aldehydes and yes, they are paired with an industrial note I can't really identify, but then comes a spicy freshness and the soft lilac. It has all the elements that I wanted for the Virgin, it's sharp, cold, sweet, alien, futuristic, plasticky, intriguing and intoxicating. And, most importantly, it defines beauty  in an unfashionable and unconventional way. 

Where to see:
You can visit The Virgin surrounded by angels at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp

Monday, 19 May 2014

Springtime in Paris

This spring, time is flying by even quicker than usual. While it definitely feels like it  was just last week that we were visiting Paris, since then we had: celebrated Easter, a visit from the mother in law, a week in Germany, lots of gardening, a countrywalk, the first BBQ of the year and and and.. What I hadn't done so far is writing a post about the trip, so here it is, short and with quite some delay.

Not a bad view to have...

On our first day we headed to

Tiny and design conscious shop, functional, lots of clean white lines doused in pink light. 
You can browse on your own and/or with assistance from the lovely SA. Unsurprisingly they have the whole range and M. and I did a lot of sniffing together. He bought his second Incense series bottle, this time the Zagorsk, and I came home with a Stephen Jones, which hadn't been on the card/list at all, but  felt right at the moment. The fragrance was a great companion for Paris in spring. Green and floral with hint of pollution. M. wears his Zagorsk often and with real gusto. Other than the Avignon which is more of a special occasion scent, this one "makes him feel properly dressed, whatever he is wearing".

French pharmacy window display

We also had a quick look at:
This mallish perfume shop, tucked away in a little side street at the South end of the Marais, has a good selection  including Laboratorio Olfattivo, Amouage, van Euersdorff, David Jorquin, Etat libre, MDCI, Phaedon, Jul&Mad, Kilian, Mark Buxton...
Had I been on my own I could have spent a nice hour in there, but my husbands' love for perfume only goes that far so I sniffed around a bit and promised myself to come back on a later date. Which I then didn't, so this lovely shop has to wait for another Paris visit.

Coffee table

Monday was the day of undisturbed perfume testing, and for this there is no place better in Paris than 

Deep in tourist wonderland that is the Louvre area, this shop is easiest my favourite place in Paris. All the perfumes, comfy sofas, coffee, lovely service, lots of space...if they had free wifi I would probably never leave. This time the shop was very quiet and I got all the help  I wanted. If you want to try the fragrances on your own they won't bother you at all, but you'll get very honest assistance. I had come with a list of things to try, mostly lines that are difficult to find in the UK, like nobile 1942, Mendittorosa and 2 houses new to Jovoy: Volnay and Parfumerie Moderne. 

I had high hopes for Parfumerie Moderne, despite the unimaginative name, but none of the three perfumes left a very lasting impression on me. Cuir X was nice enough, but felt like a mix between Mon Cuir and Cuir Ottoman and I would rate both of those higher. Volnay, on the other hand, had 5 scents on offer in very beautiful cristalle bottles. Yapana, a floriental and Objet Celeste, a chypre, were my favourites and one of them will certainly feature in a review very soon. I also spend lots of time with the nobile 1942 scents and you've already seen my love for that line. On the list was also a Heeley, not exactly difficult to get in London, but while in Paris...It was the L'Amandiere that had caught my attention for it's green almond notes. And worthy of attention it definitely was. On paper quite a head spinner, the almonds are really captured in their green skin phase with just a promise of a sweetness yet to come. Of all the perfumes I had tried, this was the one I wanted to work for me the most and it therefore got a lot of my skin space. The lovely SA offered a sample without me even asking and I have to say, I'm really grateful for that because I had been in spending mood and would have probably made a purchase there and then. Thankfully I didn't. L'Amandiere, despite being an extrait, had the life span of a geriatric gnat on me. Gone in half an hour. 

Jovoy are again doing the 5x5ml sample box which had been such a succsess at the end of last year. This time the selection (available only online) is much smaller, mostly newcomer lines and the decently priced ones like Histoire and Pd'Empire, but it's still a good idea to have a look. Unfortunately their website is a bit wonky and the link they provide doesn't work. It's easier if you do a search for black box on the site. The decants are €6 per 5ml splash bottle plus shipping (free inside France, handy if you have mules or going there for the summer holiday). There is also a so called red box, reserved for more expensive frags but that selection isn't great and at €12 rather overpriced, I find. Why they not just do 1 type of box with different prices per bottle is beyond me...

During my 5 day visit I also managed to go to Colette, De Filles a la Vanille, Marionnaud, Sephora and last but not least, Serge Lutens,  did lots of not perfume related things, ate and drank (mostly) well and had a great time. As one has when in Paris. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Cafe Chantant, black forest gateau in a bottle

Italian perfume house nobile 1942 is on it's way to becoming a new favourite of mine. I have already written about the Chypre and since then I have sampled a few more scents and they all had something about them. There is the elegant Pontevecchio, the alluring Casta Diva, the totally bonkers but beautiful Danza delle Libellule (have a look at the fab review from the Black Narcissus blog) and my latest find: The delicious Cafe Chantant. 

My visual interpretation of Cafe Chantant by nobile 1942

It opens with a boozy cherry note that reminds me of good, home made, black forest gateau. Chocolate sponge drenched in Kirsch, sour cherries and a ton of cream. Yum! I'd have that any day of the week if you'd let me, but even double hour Pilates and kettlebells sessions wouldn't prevent those cakes from going straight to the hips. So, thank you nobile for creating a perfume that I can have instead. The initial booze note disappears, as you'd expect, quite quickly and the cherries dry down to a wonderful creamy vanilla patchouli. Surprisingly, it's a skin scent on me, which adds to the overall guilty pleasures feel. It's a scent I love to have around me for emergency sniffs that instantly help me feel better about the world and it also makes for an excellent night fragrance. This is not for everyone, but it makes me insanely happy. 

How and where to wear:
For one of those days...