A Nun and a Geisha at Mardi Gras

Guerlain is rather a baroque house.  Perhaps because it is one of the oldest French perfumeries, perhaps for stylistic reasons alone, the productions are exuberant to the point of excess.  The bouquets are so lush, the leather is so highly polished, the boxes of sweets are so opulently large, lined in pink or purple satin, and crammed with bon-bons, that the word lavish really seems like an understatement.

If you could anthropomorphize all of Guerlain’s scents into one joyous and flamboyant throng, I submit they’d come off rather like the Mardi Gras scenes in Les Enfants du Paradis, the film from 1945 featuring Arletty.  Everyone in extravagant brilliantly colored costume, made up within an inch of their lives, dancing, strewing flowers, flirting their heads off, the entire scene what my Southern relatives would have called a complete “carry on”. However, there are now a couple of exceptions to the general rule.

The best one that I can think of is from the Art et Matiere line Bois d’Armenie.  It’s the work of Annick Menardo. Bois is, well… austere.  I had occasion to refer to it once before when writing about frankincense, and came to the conclusion then that this was one of the few incense perfumes that are really wearable.  Bois’ notes include pink pepper, iris, coriander, benzoin, guaiac wood, patchouli and white musk.

The perfume reminds me of a nun.  Bois has all the crisp black and white contrast of a starched wimple, and the whispering rustle of Sister’s passage along a stone corridor.  This is a scent which makes very little noise as it glides along on its rope sandals. Bois is almost a skin scent, although most incense perfumes have some sillage, diffusion being the raison d’etre of incense after all, so the scent is discernible, and does cling to your clothing.

When I first encountered  the bottle,  I thought it a real anomaly in the Guerlain line-up, in fact, just about unique, because of the stark contrast to the House style.   I have to take a deep breath and say that now, they’ve got another anomaly.  Les Voyages Olfactifs is made up of city scents: Moscow, London, New York and Tokyo.  I got to smell them all last week and it was Tokyo that struck me as being least in the Guerlain mode.  I was on my way downtown to do a little business, and under those circumstances could not douse myself with Mitsouko, or Vetiver Pour Elle, or Le Petit Robe Noir.  So instead, I wore Tokyo and was very surprised.  It was discreet, understated, refined to the point of asceticism.

Point one about Tokyo is that the perfume is a green floral which already is unusual for Guerlain.  The notes are violet, jasmine, hinoki, and something else, but at the time I didn’t know what.  I wandered around Fifth trying to find the nearby Japanese pastry shop, in search of those cookies my daughter likes, and it wasn’t until I was in the shop ordering my assorted mochi, that I noticed the dry-down, green, dry, familiar…now what did it remind me of? Something I’d smelled many times before, something…in the immediate vicinity, something I associated strongly with Japanese sweets….

Oh yeah, Scent Notes for Dummies here, because the reader has long since guessed the note: Green Tea.

It was a real head-smacker of a moment.  An instant or so later I was charmed by the wit of the perfumer.  Here was a perfume presumably made for an Asian consumer, that actually referenced scents commonly found in Tokyo. The scent did make a kind of hologram of the city in one’s head, but met the conditions of delicacy that an Asian inflected fragrance ought to meet.

Tokyo hasn’t received the credit it deserves, as a really good, somewhat innovative scent, perhaps because this perfume  doesn’t smell like a Guerlain. Tokyo’s only real companion in that line, is the austerely habited Bois d’Armenie, and perhaps that is who Tokyo has to pad over to, and chat to in an undertone, in her lovely pale green kimono with her sakura colored obi.

The pair of them stand out amongst all those Comedia dell’Arte characters, but what the hey, sometimes change is  good, even when you’re dealing with a stellar cast.

PS, I can’t find the attribution of Tokyo.  Does anyone know?  If I had to guess, I’d say Annick Menardo again, but I am probably wrong. Please share if you know.

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