Let me start by paying homage: the Strange Invisible Perfumes store on too-cool-to-live Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Ca., is almost worth a 6,000 mile (carbon-offset) trip in itself. Indeed, The Scent Critic was so keen to visit this botanical perfumery that when a business trip to Los Angeles was on the cards, a hotel was specifically booked nearby, in order to make a pilgrimage.
Choosing one out of the two dozen or so creations (because SIPs are most certainly not drugstore-priced) was like trying to choose which of your children to save in a fire. Well, that’s over-dramatising, but it was seriously hard. Over time, I hope gradually to work my way through more of these otherworldly creations – maybe Black Rosette, with its roses, black tea, leather and spearmint; deliciously sweet and soft Fire and Cream (think oranges and orange blossom, frankincense, white lavender and vetiver), and crisp-as-a-Mediterranean-morning Peloponnesian, all of which tickled The Scent Critic’s fancy no end.
Though I didn’t fall in love with every single creation, none was less than intriguing. In the end, after much sniffing of nostril-refreshing coffee beans, I settled on the joyous nectar that is L’Invisible (in eau de parfum format): an ethereal synergy of amber, moss, ylang-ylang, rose and lemon. Described as the ‘Little Black Dress’ of the Strange Invisible collection, it’s more akin to a Paris scent than many of the more truly ‘botanical’ botanicals in the collection – but I’m wearing it everyday and love, love, loving its fresh/warm contrasts.
The weird thing is, it smells just like L.A., to me – and maybe that’s why I love it:. Not the diesel-fume-laden freeway L.A., or the fast-food-aromas-L.A., but a stroll through the traffic-free lanes of residential Santa Monica and Venice L.A.: sun-warmed, delivering bursts of citrussy scents from trees in blossom or sometimes laden with fruit (always a miracle to someone from a more apple-y climate), with roses scrambling everywhere and blowsy hibiscus bursting through picket fences.
It’s seriously nuzzleable, one of those scents that has strangers looking at you weirdly as you find yourself burying your nose in the crook of your own elbow. There’s nothing in-yer-face about any of SIP’s scents: they’re very much about the personal enjoyment of perfumery, rather than spray-to-impress. L’Invisible smells like the skin of someone you really, really love, up-close-and-personal. There’s a slightly feral note, when I first spray it on my skin: not the usual alcohol rush delivered by some scents, but something animalic. Yet that fight-or-flight whoosy mellows in an accelerated heartbeat, morphing into softer and sweeter. If you ask me, there’s something afternoon-at-the-beach about it, too: when your skin’s been toasted by the sun, and the teensiest fragrant traces of expensive French suntan oil remain.
It’s dreamy, floaty, woozy. And altogether pretty heavenly. Over time, a vanilla-amber warmth emerges: a flickering, lightly smoking fire, a cashmere blanket swathed around you, on a chilly, clear L.A. night, with a resinous candle burning somewhere on a coffee table in the next room. Cosy. Definitely cosy, after a while.
A little background, meanwhile: Alexandra Balahoutis, the ‘botanical perfumer’ behind Strange Invisible Perfumes, is kinda Hollywood royalty: the stepdaughter of successful film and TV Jerry Bruckheimer, and daughter of Linda a ‘preservation activist’. Maybe that’s where she got her ‘green’ leanings, but the raison d’etre of SIP (as it’s known) is to offer a botanically-based alternative to the highly synthesised fragrances which predominate, certainly, on that side of the Atlantic. The production process is fascinating: many of the botanicals are grown on Alexandra’s family farm in Ojai, a hippie-ish enclave north of L.A., then expertly hydro-distilled using a special process n which the plants and flowers only slowly give up their perfumed secrets. (No steam-blasting for these precious flowers.) The base, universally, is organic grape alcohol – which to The Scent Critic seems way gentler on the senses than the cheap stuff; wherever possible, the ingredients are organically-certified and/or biodynamic or wild-crafted.
And what of the name? It’s Shakespeare-inspired: ‘From the barge, a strange invisible perfume hits the sense of the adjacent wharf…’ (Antony and Cleopatra.) Clever-clogs will spot other literary references running through SIP’s collection, too. All of which makes me want to get to know Alexandra a little better, and get to know her perfumes a lot better. In a fragrance world that’s frequently dumbed-down, Strange Invisible Perfumes – which could equally be called Strange Intelligent Perfumes – is the kind of sense-tingling discovery that makes a 6,000-mile trip across several time zones, and lying awake in your hotel room at 3 a.m., actually pleasurable.
So: excuse me while I sniff my elbow.