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January 27, 2012 | Bottega Veneta

‘Never apologise, never explain.’  So:  no long-winded justification for The Scent Critic’s hiatus;  she’s simply throwing herself headlong into reviews again, before the 2012 launch season gets up a serious head of steam.  Let us hope that this will be another vintage year, as 2011 surprisingly turned out to be – the Chateau Pétrus (or should that be the Brunello…?) of which, in my book, was Bottega Veneta’s debut scent.

Everything about it shrieks the cliché ‘understated luxury’ – but for once, with this modern chypre, created by Michel Almairac, that couldn’t be more appropriate.  We all know that the raison d’être of the scent industry – at its more commercial end – is to drive ‘you-can’t-afford-the-bag-so-buy-the-perfume’ sales.  Simple as that.  Ker-ching, ker-ching, ker-ching.

Mostly, I wouldn’t want the perfume or the handbag – but Bottega Veneta is different.  Well over 30 years ago I found myself virtually licking the window of their first little shop near Harry’s Bar, lusting after the so-unusual woven leather bag I saw there.  I can remember it vividly:  chocolate brown, butter-soft, no logo.  I loved its absolute discretion:  this was a bag that only those-in-the-know would recognise.  (I’d never heard of Bottega Veneta, notwithstanding my Vogue subscription.)  And there was absolutely no way, then, that I was going to find the £700 it required – in 1976, for God’s sake! – to acquire it.  One day, I vowed, I’d own one. Continue reading Bottega Veneta

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November 25, 2011 | Chanel Jersey

When a little bird at Chanel (actually, they’re all little birds at Chanel) told The Scent Critic that their next fragrance launch was based around lavender and vanilla, I said a silent ‘hmmmm’.  Because lavender and vanilla aren’t natural bedfellows, in fragrance.  They don’t go together like a horse and carriage;  they go together like a horse and – well, a tricycle.  Or a pair of rollerskates.

But this is a Labradoodle of a fragrance, as it turns out.  Or a Cockapoo.  You know:  those dogs which are created by taking two fairly attractive breeds (for instance, labrador and poodle), and creating something altogether more cute and appealing.  (Though not a ‘dog person’ – The Scent Critic has plastic bag issues – I have been known to melt when encountering a Cockapoo on the end of a lead.)  Lavender on its own:  aromatic, but a touch antiseptic. Vanilla?  Great in an ice cream, or a sponge cake, but over-eager use in a fragrance sends it speeding in the direction of ickiness.  Together?  In über-nose Jacques Polge’s hands, at least, somewhat delicious.

It took me a few wears to really get my head round Jersey, nevertheless.  (And a few ‘Wow, you smell nice’-es, from friends and colleagues, which always helps.)  It’s crisp and clean at the start:  I really am trailing my fingers through a lavender bush, which obviously is the effect Polge was going for.  Now, classically, lavender is a masculine ingredient.  Or a Little Old Lady ingredient (familiar from brushing your lips against a favourite great-aunt’s slightly hirsute cheek, and getting a whiff of her Yardley).  But here, the herbal cleanliness mellows in just a few minutes, and Jersey becomes cloud-soft and cashmere-snuggly.

OK, I lie.  Jersey is soft like those microfibre socks and blankets which feel like swansdown, are spun from some earth-plundering petrochemical, no doubt – but which are (ssshhhh!) the guilty textile pleasure of many an otherwise soignée woman in my social circle…

In reality it’s intended, I’m sure, to be soft as jersey itself:  the fabric which Coco Chanel embraced in the early 1920s, taking it out of the underwear drawer – it was worn, by chaps, in vest form – and using it instead to create drape-y clothes which liberated women from whalebone corsetry in one French-seamed bound.  Why, the bottle I was sent – not sure if this is standard issue or Scent Critic privilege – actually came with its own drawstring jersey pouch.

The lavender, FYI – grown close to Montpellier – is apparently unusual in that it’s extracted in a ‘dry steam’ distillation, which doesn’t ‘cook’ the raw material in the usual way.  Is that why it has all the lightness, and none of the familiar antiseptic qualities?  Peut-être. (What I do know – having recently been privileged enough to be present at the Chanel jasmine harvest in Grasse – is that they’re obsessive about provenance.  Which is partly, of course, why Chanel is Chanel.)

Rose and jasmine give Jersey its necessary structure – the Little Black Dress ingredients in every fragrance – but the vanilla (and a touch of tonka bean) sweep in pretty smartish.  There’s an element of ‘baby’s head’ about it:  the nuzzleable quality of a freshly-bathed toddler.  Indeed I wouldn’t label Jersey as ‘sexy’, at all;  it’s comforting and soothing (in aromatherapeutic terms, vanilla and lavender are both calming), which probably make it just what the doctor ordered in a global financial meltdown.  (Although, like all the Les Exclusifs creations, Jersey’s exclusivity comes at a pretty hefty price.)

As I fossick around in my scent memories, the fragrance it most reminds me of is the original Tartine et Chocolate (from Givenchy):  originally marketed as a children’s scent, because of its subtle delicacy, but loved by grown-ups, and – just like Jersey – unfolding to a vanilla warmth, on the skin.  Were you so inclined, and despite the white musk whispers in the base, you could also safely spray Jersey on a 4-year-old.  (Not that you probably would, at this price, unless you happened to be wedded to a Russian oligarch).

Equally, it could be worn by a man, I’d say (though probably not the stevedore type), and would smell très elegant as he wafted around.  It doesn’t hang around for that long, to be totally honest, but I think it’s nice while it does.  That might sound like damning with faint praise, but I like both the bold Provençale lavender overture, and the pretty, powdery dry-down.  And I’ve found myself fairly compulsively re-spritzing, since Jersey landed on my desk, which probably speaks volumes.

Plus:  I really love it when perfumers, like dog breeders, break the rules.  Rule-breaking is a great Chanel tradition – why not make frocks out of vest fabric, or be first to try to balance lavender with vanilla? – and while this may not be the greatest scent creation of the 21st century, and not quite up there alongside Sycomore or 28 La Pausa in the roll-call of Chanel Les Exclusifs triumphs, Jersey deserves a rosette, for trying.

A black and white rosette, please.

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November 3, 2011 | Clinique Aromatics Elixir Perfumer's Reserve

The Scent Critic always wanted to be older than she was.  (Until recently, anyway:  that ambition’s definitely lost its allure.)  So, looking back, my fragrance choices were ludicrously sophisticated for a teenager.  While my friends were swathing themselves in Avon Honeysuckle, my tastes were distinctly more mature – and that’s where Clinique Aromatics Elixir, currently celebrating its fortieth birthday, came in.

There are some scents that, worn by younger women, are the equivalent of stepping into Mummy’s high heeled shoes.  For a 15-year-old, Aromatics Elixir wasn’t akin simply to slipping into her shoes, but borrowing her fur coat, nicking the car keys and her Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and going for a long, illegal drive, topped off with an illicit back-seat snog (with a cigarette chaser) in a wooded clearing.

Although I don’t often wear Aromatics Elixir, nowadays, every few years we have a bit of a reunion and I’m invariably thrilled – upon re-encountering what has gone on to become one of the all-time classic chypres – to rediscover its confident refinement.  It’s the silk lining to a couture coat.  The snap of a vintage alligator evening bag closing.  The click-click-click of heels on a marble floor (Mummy’s, Bette Davis’s, Suzy Parker’s, anyone’s, actually), to me.

Our latest assignation was triggered by the unveiling of a ‘special edition’ to mark Aromatics Elixir’s aforementioned big Four-Oh.  Rather scarily, I not only remember the original launch, but recall saving up weeks of  pocket money for an early bottle.  (Waiting till there was a gift-with-purchase, I think – a concept pioneered by Clinique and other Lauder brands – to make it worth my while to bundle a bottle of the golden juice with one of Dramatically Different Moisturising Lotion.)  This new version – a little ‘tweak’ on the original (though very, very slight, if you ask The Scent Critic) – is Limited Edition Perfumer’s Reserve, a ‘modern reinterpretation’ as they put it. Continue reading Clinique Aromatics Elixir Perfumer’s Reserve

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October 13, 2011 | Estée Lauder Sensuous Nude

This latest in a trio of aptly-named Sensuous fragrances from Estée Lauder has rather tickled The Scent Critic’s fancy.  And her nostrils.  Really and truly tickled her nostrils.  Because at first spritz, this is like putting your nose inside a bag of sherbet-y sweets.  Flying saucers, maybe.  Or the head-rush of poking your face in a paper bag in which your Sherbet Dab (paid for with your precious pocket money) leaked.  Or that strange mouth/nostril explosion of bliss that happens when the brittle tangy outerwear on a sherbet lemon finally bursts in your mouth (which probably owes something to the blast of citrus in the overture – bergamot and mandarin, so Lauder tell us).

Indeed, if you’ve ever stood beside a candy floss machine (cotton candy, to transatlantic scentophiles), Sensuous Nude has that same spun-sugar quality you breathe there, too – and since I live in a seaside town where candy floss is omnipresent you’ll have to trust me on this.  (Er, have you guessed by now that my specialist subject, in the unlikely event that I should ever be invited onto Mastermind, is ‘British confectionery from 1960 to the present day…?’)

Famously, Chanel No. 5 gives that same ‘head-rush’ when you unstopper the bottle:  a sort of champagne fizz (down to the heavy lacing of aldehydes).  Maybe it’s an aldehyde delivering the same effect with Sensuous Nude, but it dances out of the bottle like a 1920s flapper doing an absinthe-fuelled tabletop Charleston. Continue reading Estée Lauder Sensuous Nude

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October 3, 2011 | Miller Harris La Fumée

For someone who’s never taken so much as a puff of a cigarette in her life, it’s perhaps a little odd that The Scent Critic is addicted to smokiness.  Give me an open fire.  A steaming pot of Lapsang Souchong (actually, give me that at 4 p.m. sharp in the afternoon and I’ll worship you forever).  I’m no Papist, but give me Catholic churches, an hour or so after Mass, where the incense swirls with dust motes in the shafts of multi-coloured light beaming from stained glass windows.  Why, The Scent Critic has even been known to stand by steaming vats of tar beside roads being mended, and just b-r-e-a-t-h-e, like some kind of weirdo…

So yes, please, give me Miller Harris’s new La Fumée, which is my first love affair of the new harvest of autumnal fragrances.  (There’s a surprising number of real gems, which I’ll work my way through in upcoming postings.)  Woods, of course, are something that British perfumer Lyn Harris does particularly well:  girliness just isn’t her ‘thang’.  But this is probably my favourite of her couple of dozen creations to date.

I wouldn’t call it the most original creation in the fragrance world – there are not-so-distant echoes of Serge Lutens’s light-the-blue-touch-paper-and-retire Ambre Sultan, not to mention Nez à Nez’s cedar-and-amber Atelier d’un Artiste, which has recently had a cameo role on my dressing table.  But this is really, really worth discovering by anyone seduced by amber notes, or drawn to dry woods, because it’s just so darned snuggly and wearable.  And just as soon as this heatwave ends, and I’ve retrieved my opaques from the bottom drawer, I’ll be wrapping myself in its pashmina-warmth pretty compulsively, and it’ll almost compensate for the drop in temperature. Continue reading Miller Harris La Fumée

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September 11, 2011 | Chanel No. 19 Poudré

The Scent Critic has experienced one of life’s little detours, and hereby apologises  profoundly for a prolonged absence.  The pulse-point on my right wrist, you see – not to mention the rest of the wrist itself – has for some weeks been encased in plaster, my ‘scent-trigger’ finger rendered weak and useless, too, all because of a momentary greengage-and-rain-related slip on my sloping lawn.  Which, in turn, led to surgery, six pins and a metal plate.  I’m not asking for sympathy.  (Oh, if you insist.)  But I tell you:  it wasn’t quite the summer ‘break’ I’d envisaged, and it sure kept me from the keyboard.

Happily, both wrists are now spritzable again, and to restart this blog I thought I’d look at an audacious twist on an all-time classic:  Jacques Polge’s Chanel No. 19 Poudré, which was launched on what would have been Mademoiselle Chanel’s 128th birthday, 19th August.  (Hence the name.)  Audacious, of course, because it’s always brave to play with a classic, even if there’s an imperative to introduce it to a new (and in this case, presumably, younger) audience.

Now, the original No. 19 was one of The Scent Critic’s favourites:  my ‘workday’ fragrance when I was pretty young myself, typing up conveyances in a Sloane Street solicitor’s office, reading magazines rather than editing or writing for them.  I thought it was le dernier cri in sophistication, and I loved that it was crisp and green and not too girly.

So for me, this has happy, nostalgic echoes of that No. 19, with the green edges slightly buffed off.  There’s less of nose-tingling champagne-like head-rush of aldehydes which is as much a signature of many of Chanel’s scents as that double-C logo, because it heads straight for the sharp green galbanum, such a key ingredient in the original.  It’s wet, cool, crisp and intriguing:  all crushed leaves and stems in a dark wood with maybe a little waterfall playing somewhere off into the undergrowth onto limestone slabs.  And at this point, it’s très, très No. 19, but without the slightly bitter edge that makes that fragrance rather love-it-or-hate-it. Continue reading Chanel No. 19 Poudré

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July 27, 2011 | Martin Margiela (Untitled) L'Eau

Cool as a cucumber.  Cool as crisp linen sheets.  Cool as an ice cube, drizzled over sun-sizzled skin.  Some fragrances, The Scent Critic has experienced, have a temperature all of their own – and Maison Martin Margiela (Untitled) L’Eau is definitely on the ‘chilled’ side:  a perfect summer spritz, if we ever get the blazing days that a British summer promises (but has so far failed to deliver).

Actually, I believe fragrances have a ‘colour’, too.  And in fact, a lot of work goes into creating a ‘juice’ inside the bottle, to ensure it matches the fragrance’s ‘vibe’.  In the case of Maison Martin Margiela (Untitled) L’Eau, this slight mouthful of a scent, I think they got it spot-on:  a limpid pale green – which couldn’t be anything but refreshing, could it…?

Quite simply, it smells green.  Close your eyes and sniff, breathe in the mossy mid-notes and the buchu – a relative of blackcurrant (this has a decided Ribena tang, like rubbing your fingers on a Ribes plant).  And I defy you to get anything but visions of green swimming into your mind’s eye.  I’m right there, myself, in a shaded wood, lying on slightly damp ground and looking up into a leafy canopy.  I’m seated in a French chateau garden, one that’s bi-sected by immaculate topiary, with limestone gravel underfoot.  (There’s a sort of ‘flinty’ quality in this scent, somewhere – the scent of a statue, or a piece of chalk – adding an even more intriguing dimension.)  Continue reading Martin Margiela (Untitled) L’Eau

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June 24, 2011 | Christian Dior Ambre Nuit

And so we come to the end of what’s turned into ‘Christian Dior Week’ on The Scent Critic.  After today, I still have seven more of the Collection Privée to work my way through (and they are all worthy of review, without exception – which isn’t something you can say of many scent ranges).  But I’m back to being more of a perfume brand slut, after this week, lest anyone think that Dior are bunging me envelopes of fivers for this coverage.  (They are not.)

However, Ambre Nuit is the perfect finale to the week.  Sexier and more smoochy than the either Milly-la-Forêt or Vétiver, which I reviewed earlier this week.  Not one for the office.  (Unless you’re actually having an affair with one of your co-workers, that is.)

The clue is in the name:  Amber Night.  Although actually, despite its seductive qualities, to some extent it could be Amber Lite:  not as intoxicating as some ambers (I’m thinking Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, or Laura Mercier Ambre Passion), which have a heady, pendant stillness, like the air before a big storm.  It’s on-your-neck rather than in-your-face.  And as a result, maybe Ambre Nuit isn’t quite racy or down-and-dirty enough for some amber-lovers – but for those who are just discovering this sensual, warm category of fragrances, it’s an exquisite amber ‘starter’ perfume. Continue reading Christian Dior Ambre Nuit

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June 21, 2011 | Christian Dior Vétiver

It’s downright weird how one fragrance can lead you to another, like a sort of olfactory tennis-elbow-foot game.  The Scent Critic would have put money on Dior’s Vétiver – the second in the Collection Privée that I’ll be reviewing – taking me in the direction of, say, Guerlain’s legendary Vétiver, or maybe the bestselling Grey Vetiver from so-sexy Tom Ford.

But no.  What François Demachy’s creation ever-so-slightly reminds me of – and don’t scuttle away at the mention – is none other than that love-it-or-hate-it Dior blockbuster Poison, which (together with Giorgio Beverly Hills) created an entire category of rather scary scents, in the 80s:  the ‘room-rocker’.

Until I smelled Dior Vétiver, I never realised there was – well, quite so much of this grassy ingredient in Poison itself.  Then I looked it up, and voilà!  There’s the vetiver.  So as I breathed this new creation, I realised:  vetiver totally underpins Poison.  Which I thought I hated… Continue reading Christian Dior Vétiver

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June 20, 2011 | Christian Dior Milly-la-Foret

Have you ever lost your scent mojo?  Then if this has happened to you, lately, I would like to suggest – if you live within striking distance of Oxford Street – that you might like to head towards the Dior Maison de Parfums, in Selfridges.  (It’s catty-corner from the Chanel fragrance boutique, which may mean atomisers at dawn for the brands themselves, but it’s heavenly for scentophiles.)

The Scent Critic has had sniffer’s block, you see.  I put it down to a rather tawdry little scent of which I took a spectacularly gorgeous picture (if I say so myself) but – try as I might – could not bring myself to blog about.  It was too cheap.  Too headachey.  Too… damned awful, actually.  And then the other day, I sat down for a one-on-one consultation on a comfy sofa at the Dior Maison de Parfums, and was led by the hand – and the nose – through the 10 intriguing and mostly downright gorgeous Collection Privée creations that are exclusively available in this scent oasis, a footstep from one of the world’s most nightmarish (to me) shopping streets.

You can sniff and spritz to your heart’s content in this glamorous department, but I can recommend a ‘consultation’ with one of the rather well-trained, Dior-clad beauties who seem justifiably to be pinching themselves at their good fortune for landing this fragrant gig.  You’ll be asked what you like, scent-wise, but also several ‘personality’ questions – are you a party person or do you like evenings in…?, for instance – before smelling a ‘shortlist’ of spills that have been secretly spritzed with the scents, out of more than a couple of dozen Dior scents in all, which the consultant has at her immaculately-varnished fingertips.  (Partly so that you don’t have any preconceptions about what you’re being asked to smell.  About, for instance, J’Adore, never mind the infamous Poison…)  The idea is you end up with a recommendation for night (for me, it was Ambre Nuit), and for day. Continue reading Christian Dior Milly-la-Forêt

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