For a very long time I just couldn’t understand what this perfume family was about. I had no problem with orientals, I was getting what makes a scent a fougère, but when it came to chypres, I got that blank gaze on my face. I am not very good in analysis, synthesis is my thing, so the classic olfactory triangle of that defines a chypre -bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum, could not help me identify what makes a chypre a chypre. So I started chasing them, smelling as many as possible, looking for the common denominator. I have to admit that help came from the most unexpected source. I noticed that every time I wore a chypre my SO would say “you are wearing one of those pissy ones again….“. Although they didn’t smell like piss to me I finally got to understand what he meant and this is how I found the common denominator: chypres smell like Perfume, capital P! It is my memory of what women used to smell when I was a child and once I unlocked that box it was easy for me to understand what all the fuss is about. It is the smell of powdered skin, lipstick containing now banned material ,and fur coats, all rolled into one magnificent accord that lies in the heart of every true chypre. What might be perceived as a pissy overtone, is nothing but the smell of old memories, the essence of chypre coming from an ancestral, primordial place, rooted deep in memory. If you manage to recreate this olfactory pathway down memory lane you will have managed to create a chypre, even if oakmoss is nowhere in sight. A perfect example for this is Lumière Noire pour homme, which smells like a big perfume, a true chypre to my nose, but does not contain the Evernia prunastri extract, a substance so dangerous that banning it has saved millions of lives worldwide…., or maybe not.
Niki de Saint Phalle eau de toilette was incremental in my journey of discovery. Released in 1982, a celbuscent for art lovers, bears the name and signature of French model, revolutionary artist (circa 1961) and film maker Niki de Saint Phalle. You can read about her exciting life and work here, but to cut a long story short, she is probably the only visual artist I know who actually got involved in the release of an eponymous perfume, without the mediation of marketing and without linking this to fashion.
The scent itself opens very bright and floral but then makes a U turn to darker grounds. I get a vague citrus note in the opening, followed by a pink fleshy rose. Bitter galbanum quickly joins the company but for several minutes this remains a very bright, very floral scent. But suddenly things start to move and shift and earthy moss starts eclipsing the brighter elements of the opening. Where the walk started in a floodlit corner of the garden, full of whispering flower buds, you suddenly find yourself having strolled off to a dark corner, your feet sinking in rich soil and with chilly waves caressing your back. Further down the road however things become even stranger, when leather surfaces from the depths of the composition. The kind of leather that I prefer, not too literate, it makes no references to handbags, shoes, whips and car seats. It is a vague rendition of a leather note that can hover and combine with the other notes without ever narrowing your perspective. All this is meticulously laced with a velvety texture of carnation and iris, two of my very favourite notes.
I cannot say taht I know what Evernia prunastri extract, what we call oakmoss, smells like but by now I have a good idea of where to look for it in a fragrance composition. It gives this bitter earthiness that also brings an animal vibe, not so much an animalic note as we know it in musk, but rather a smell somewhere between good and evil, pleasant and alarming. On a biological sidenote, oakmoss is a lichen. This means that it is not a plant, it is not a fungus, it is not a bacterium. It is all this together. Each species of lichen is the symbiosis of two species, a fungus that provides the genetic material for the roots, and a photosynthetic micro-organism that provides what fungi lack, the ability to turn light into substance. Moss, the end result, has no resemblance to either of the two organisms that fuse in a mysterious symbiosis in order to produce what manifests itself as moss. This unique type of symbiosis that does not stop at helping two organisms live together side by side, but alters completely their appearance and properties has always fascinated me. The symbiosis leads to such a profound transformation that scientists are forced to acknowledge it as a new life form in its own right. Even if all this sounds too geeky to excite you, I believe that the twin soul of oakmoss, decay eating fungus and light capturing algae, merge and give birth to the soul of chypre, a walk in the garden of good and evil
Notes from Parfumo: Artemisia, Bergamot, Green notes, Mint, Peach, Carnation, Orris root, Jasmine, Patchouli, Rose, Ylang-ylang, Cedar, Amber, Oakmoss, Leather, Musk, Sandalwood
Notes from my nose: bergamot, rose, carnation, galbanum, iris, oakmoss, leather