Orientals had been rather passe. I’m not sure when the turnaround came, but sometime around the end of the oughts, oriental perfumes came back into fashion and the previously ubiquitous fruity florals were back- catalogued. Something had shifted in the zeitgeist, or fashion, or the cloudy upper ether of the fragrance world.
I realized that the change was complete when I leafed through a book on Berlin fashion and discovered that some cool Berliners were now wearing Frederic Malle’s Dries Van Noten (a woody oriental, specifically an update of Nuit de Noel and Bois des Isles). They wouldn’t have been doing that five years ago.
The road back to relevance for orientals was paved by indie efforts, I’m convinced. For one thing it’s pretty easy to add fruit notes to orientals, but they also have greater complexity than fruity florals. They are also easier to like than chypres or floral aldehydes which are darker, drier and more abstract. Orientals contain comfortingly familiar food components, and often a discreet little nip of alcohol.
The first one I remember becoming a cult hit was Dinner By Bobo from 2002. These days Dinner, done by Sylvie Jourdet, is obscure. I’m not even sure if Dinner is in production anymore but its formula was full to bursting with fruits. The top contained lime and tropical fruits, but the heart proceeded to “cook” those fruits with heavy spices, kind of like a perfume seviche, so served up peach and plum with cardamom, cinnamon and caraway seeds.
The finish veered away towards the floral with vanilla, musk and patchouli but also jasmine, ylang-ylang and violet. Dinner moved in the opposite direction of most fruity florals, which had burned through all their sugar calories by the end of the fragrance. Dinner had a cola, or “Dr. Pepper” tonality going on, as well as a scent of cinnamon stewed fruit. The perfume also had a curious reputation for smelling like meat or Indian food, and this put off some people, but in general this Dinner from the turn of the century, was quite a meal.
Back to Black (aphrodisiac) was another in that line composed by Calice Becker in ’09, and By Killian’s first hit. I smelled it at one of the Sniffapaloozas, and was given a sample. Back to Black was extremely dense, and I thought of a very thickly filled, liquor soaked fruitcake. I also found that the tobacco, cherries and whiskey parts of the fragrance were by far the most prominent on me. I did catch some of the gingerbread, but apart form some saffron and cardamom, not much additional spice. Vanilla and tonka you could identify, but not the chamomile or geranium that are in Back to Black’s notes. Once again you had an oriental that was very foody, but not quite so foody as Dinner. Seven years on the taste in oriental fragrance was changing, growing more complex and booze was most definitely at Back to Black’s party. This was not a fragrance for young girls, though it could be, and probably is, often worn by men.
Finally there’s Zelda, Shelley Waddington’s perfume from ’13. I’ve written about Zelda which continues to perplex me a bit. Zelda quite frankly is not a gourmand oriental. You see in a cult fragrance like this one, how tastes have changed again. Shelley Waddington was using some of the perfume phrases popular in the twenties but she also updated them.
Zelda is a perfume with a unique spicy green opening that spreads like a lawn umbrella over a heart of green lawns and magnolias in bloom. I wonder now if she was referencing mint juleps and the the smell of southern flowers which would have been part of Zelda Fitzgerald’s youth ( the wife of F. Scot Fitzgerald after whom the perfume is named, was from Alabama) or whether this green lift is meant to remind us of live oaks? It doesn’t really matter because whatever the intentions of Ms Waddington, Zelda is really beautiful and quite different. It’s also a far cry from the general run of orientals. Maybe Zelda’s a cult perfume, but it has the makings of a classic because there is never a moment in Zelda’s development, from flight to drydown when the scent isn’t arresting and lovely. What makes this cult is that it’s also offbeat.
They should be wearing this in Berlin.