Inwardly I groaned, because Tabu has never been a favorite of mine since the far off days when my Mother used it as a signature scent, thereby creating a fumic dead zone around herself. You couldn’t smell anything around her but Tabu. I mean absolutely nothing.
Opium, great hit that it was, provoked a similar reaction from me, namely, dislike. Apparently this isn’t unusual. Both scents are love or hate inducing perfumes. They are unique, strong personalities; “No one remains indifferent to Jean Carles’ sledgehammer,” as Michael Edwards puts it.
So granted, Tabu and Opium are polarizing, but do you really have to understand Tabu? Is it like L’Heure Bleue, one of those set pieces of the classic canon you need to experience? One of those perfumes you have to parse in order to comprehend the structure of a classic French perfume? Is Tabu part of an education in classical perfumery? Or is it a dense, dated, hodge-podge, too heavy to bother with nowadays?
Part of the issue is the theory of modifiers that Jean Carles put forward in perfumery. His idea was that one ingredient- if emphasized sufficiently- skewed a formula and made it memorable in a way that nothing else could. In the case of Tabu, the ingredient was patchouli, which Carles used in 10% of Tabu’s composition.
This was unheard of at the time (1932) and was a risk anytime, because patchouli reads as “dirt” to some noses, mere grubbiness and the avoidance of the inevitable bath. But then again, Carles had been presented with the famously unusual brief for Dana’s first fragrance: perfume for a whore. Cleanliness, like godliness, was clearly off the agenda for that brief that day.
Opium was developed for Yves Saint Laurent by Roure, also the home of Tabu, and it was not surprising that, when looking for an oriental that would compete with Shalimar, they hit on the old patchouli/carnation explosion that powered Tabu like an infernal combustion engine. Carles thought that patchouli exploded other ingredients, made them pop. The idea had worked once for Roure why not update it? Why wouldn’t it work for the club goer of the seventies?*
It’s the spices that modify the essential oils of Opium, as patchouli once did the body of Tabu. They modify the heart of the fragrance just the way that an adverb inflects the meaning of a verb, changing its meaning completely.
In Tabu you hear patchouli loudly, in Opium you perceive the spices pervasively. In either case the perfume has expressed itself unforgettably, though sometimes I wish it hadn’t. But then, great perfumes are no respecters of personal taste.
So, are Tabu and Opium still relevant to today’s perfume wearers, or have these two spirited old dames outlived their eras?
*My information from Michael Edwards’ Perfume Legends, and a lecture given by Jean Carles.