Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Perfume 101: Stealing Mojo

There are some people who veer on the side of gender categorization when it comes to fine fragrance; I’m not one of them. I’ve never felt confounded by cross-spritzing and neither has anyone in the vicinity of my sillage. There was one exception, but it was not through any gender-bending effort on my part. I would categorize the effect as a form of olfactive ventriloquism. Instead of throwing my voice, I threw my fragrance. As a result I stole a man’s mojo.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the time when urges for chocolate and caffeine overpower all rational thinking in an office. The thought of opening up a bar of Pierre Marcolini’s Fleur de Cacao (85%) was exceedingly tempting. I refrained from Belgian chocolate, defied aromatic memories of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and reached into my purse for a bottle of fragrance. After two sprays my senses were revived and I was ready to get back to work at the beauty company where I was consulting. A few minutes later, a gaggle of women began to fuss over a creative department hottie. Tall, thin and mischievously sexy, the gentleman in question looked like The Clash’s Joe Strummer couturized by Hedi Slimane. Three women surrounded him, each offering a single question. “What’s that smell?” “Are you wearing cologne?” “Mmm, what is that? They began sniffing him and I mean really sniffing him.

The women smelled the top of his head, his neck and his wrist, but couldn’t find the source of the scent they found so compelling. He playfully offered the sleeve of his sweater as possible evidence, suggesting it was the Armani Acqua di Gio he had applied in the morning. No “ah-ha” moment ensued. Each woman smelled the sleeve of his sweater and shook her head in disappointment. “Maybe it’s my deodorant,” he razzed. The women agreed that that the source of the intriguing scent had most likely walked passed the art department and left a trail in his wake. As they tried to recall all of the men that had passed through the immediate vicinity I found myself feeling a bizarre mixture of guilt, omniscience and pleasure. I began to wonder if there was a diagnosis code for a “scent voyeur”.

I raised my hand and cleared my throat, “Mea culpa. I think it might be what I just put on.” One of the women, a blonde with a velvety German accent, walked up to my desk where I offered a petite bottle as evidence. She removed the cap and smelled the atomizer. The culprit was Commes de Garçons 2. As she and I began talking about designer Rei Kawakubo’s fashions my unwitting male target bellowed, “So? What is it?!” I couldn’t tell if he was irritated by our Commes de Garçons girl chat or amused by the whole affair. I know one thing for sure; inadvertently orchestrating a lovefest for another person via scent is a strange and powerful experience. As a result, the phrase “olfactive ventriloquism” is now a part of my perfumista vocabulary.

Mark Buxton of Symrise created Commes de Garçons 2 in 1999. It is a fresh woody floral composed of, violet leaf, orange, angelica root and cardamom in the top; cinnamon, jasmine, magnolia, bay leaf, rose and Sumi ink accord in the heart; and leather, patchouli, vetiver, musk, wet stone accord and Chinese cedarwood in the base. The floral aspect can be compared to the subtle smell of flowers in the rain, devoid of any indolic qualities that typically characterize heady white flowers.

There is an addictive quality in Commes de Garçons 2 that induces prolonged, trance-like inhalations at first sniff. The exquisitely pitched freshness lingers in the drydown and is most evident in the body cream formulation of the fragrance (especially on clothing worn on parts of the body where the cream is applied). Freshness is achieved without the addition of copious amounts of citrus or Calone (the ubiquitous molecule used in men’s fragrance that has an ozone/marine-like quality). The olfactive architecture of Commes de Garçons 2 owes much to the Sumi ink accord and perfumer Mark Buxton’s interpretation of magnolia. Each of these harmonious constructions bucks tradition, gender and stereotyping in fragrance—much like the designs of Rei Kawakubo herself.

In order to create the ink accord, Buxton had to explore numerous perfume bases in a fragrance brief that called for an interpretation of “black ink” used in Sumi-e, a form of Japanese brush painting. Buxton explains “We wanted to create a dark mineral fragrance without evident floral notes. Ink smells animalic, of blood, horse sweat, and has a mineral side to it…it [the fragrance] had to be mystical and edgy. The wet stone accord I created fits perfectly with the ink smell as they have some elements in common. The magnolia is a composition of mine. There is 10% in the formula and it gives off a cold floral rhubarb effect in the heart.” Though the eau de parfum smells divine (and a bit vanillic), the best execution of Commes de Garçons 2 is in the body cream, where the fragrance is dosed at perfume extract levels.

For the curious, the unwitting victim of Commes de Garçons 2 in this story is a graphic artist by day and a rock ‘n roll drummer by night. It would be cruel to out him online, though I will gladly tell Puig, the company that makes Commes de Garçons 2, where they can send him a goody bag. Since I am no longer consulting at the office where he works, he can officially have his mojo back.

Video of Muddy Waters singing "Got My Mojo Working".