This is about saving the best till last. You know, the way you leave the biggest present under the tree, to enjoy the anticipation. And so, on this 12th day of my Christmas perfume countdown, I reached for my bottle of what I consider to be my ultimate fragrance. Yes, The Scent Critic can be very fickle. But Mitsouko is my Desert Island scent: the one I return to, time and again.
If I had to choose one, out of the gazillion scents out there, I’d find it hardest to live without Mitsouko: confected by Jacques Guerlain, one of the family’s early ‘noses’, in 1919 – the man who also brought us Shalimar, Vol de Nuit and Habit Rouge. Possibly, to my mind, the greatest perfumer ever, with those under his belt.
Icing-sugar coated, smoulderingly Oriental and perfectly balanced, it segues so smoothly through all its stages. I sometimes think it’s the peach in Mitsouko’s topnotes that has spawned a hundred imitators, over the last year of fruit salad fragrances –so honeyed and dewy, here, but so easy to tip over the edge into ickiness, if a perfumer isn’t careful. Here, it makes Mitsouko sparkle, along with a head-rush of aldehydes, used to ‘open up’ the fragrance.
This scent makes me feel warm, when a fire’s not even lit. I sort of snuggle inside it. Mitsouko is one of the few reasons I actually look forward to winter: retrieving the cashmeres and the Wolford DeLuxes from the bottom drawer, and placing Mitsouko back centre-stage on the dressing table. It’s a hot mince pie. A steaming apple cider. A faux fur rug on the back seat of a sleigh, trotting through the moonlit Alpine snow. I was once lucky enough to be tucked up under one of those, wearing my Mitsouko, listening to the bells on the pony’s bridle ring through the snow-silenced landscape, and I’m sure the fragrance as much as the rug helped keep me warm.
The story behind it? Mitsouko is shrouded in myth and legend – like a good scent should be. Its ‘muse’ is allegedly Mitsouko herself, wife of a British officer during the war between Russia and Japan. Mitsouko was also the heroine of a bestselling book, La Bataille, which le tout Paris was reading after World War I. Whatever the inspiration for Jacques Guerlain, though, he used it to confect one of the first in the chypre category – just after Coty’s eponymous Chypre. The name comes from the ancient word for the island of Cyprus – and the signature is oakmoss, which gives a chypre its damp, forest-floor element.
When it’s been skin-warmed on the body, other nostrilfuls of deliciousness emerge. A swirl of rose and jasmine, the classic heart of any masterpiece. Labdanum and vetiver, patchouli, and some exquisite gentle spices. It is, quite simply, glorious. Hallelujah! I simply do not understand why it’s not right up there with Chanel No. 5 in the sales stakes, and yet half the women I know have never even smelled it. Which is a crime against perfumery…!
This is the scent that Diaghilev, the great ballet impresario, used to spritz his curtains with, upon arrival in a new hotel. If mine were dark velvet rather than pink linen, I might be tempted to do the same, but the juice is rich and ambery – a sign of its base-note-heaviness – and I wouldn’t risk the dry cleaning bill. Instead, it’s infused into all the collars of my polonecks, my coats, my pashminas, enfolding me in a little Mitsouko cloudlet every time I pull on or take off a garment. (Which when it’s freezing cold outside and boiling within, at un certan age, is quite often right now…!)
And so, The Scent Critic reaches the end of the line with her divine dozen. Swathed in my Mitsouko – my favourite, favourite Mitsouko – I am winding down until the New Year, when a new harvest of launches and scrumptious niche discoveries. My nose can’t wait. Can yours?
Meanwhile, a happy – and gorgeously fragrant – Christmas to you all…