One of my favorite columns to write during my first five years was Perfume 101. By looking at a brand while trying to pick five perfumes which represent it was most often illuminating. The only problem was there was a finite list which deserved that kind of scrutiny. After 41 editions of Perfume 101 I thought it was time to matriculate to a more advanced level. For the foreseeable future I am going to focus on the career of a perfumer in what I’m calling Perfumer 201.
One of the perfumers who has most benefited from the niche perfume expansion is Dominique Ropion. M. Ropion was there at the beginning of it; allying him to Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle right at the start. If I wanted to be lazy, I could just list the perfumes he has done for that brand; modern masterpieces like Carnal Flower or Portrait of a Lady among them. As you’ll see I chose something different. M. Ropion excels within the Oriental genre of perfumery. Many of his best fragrances fall within that category. He isn’t a one-trick pony especially more recently as my choices will reflect. Here are five perfumes by Dominique Ropion which are worth seeking out.
Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant (1996)- M. Ropion collaborated with perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac and creative director Celine Verleure at the cusp of niche perfumery. This is where M. Ropion would develop a style of soft Oriental which would show up time and again over the next twenty-plus years. He would take some of the most difficult to tame ingredients and find a nonabrasive application. It shows in the opening of L’Elephant where cumin and cardamom set the stage for clove, licorice, ylang-ylang, and mango to set up a vanilla amber base. This is still one of the very best vanilla and spice perfumes I own.
Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire (2002)- One of the innovations of niche perfumery was to encourage overdose of ingredients. This was done to find something unique in that kind of concentration. Creative director Frederic Malle encouraged M. Ropion to do that with one of the stalwart ingredients of modern perfumery, vetiver. Choosing to make it 25% of the composition. M. Ropion would frame it in woods and smoke. This is the best modern vetiver perfume ever. It is why this was the choice from M. Ropion’s incredible portfolio for this brand.
Costume National Homme (2009)- Lots of brands wanted to stake out the space of “avant-garde”. Costume National creative director Ennio Capasa was one of them. When he asked M. Ropion to make a masculine perfume he got the twist he was looking for. What this means is M. Ropion’s by-now signature sandalwood, spices, and resins become coated in a synthetic oily accord which is a slightly sweet oleaginous effect. It smells much better than it sounds.
Starck Paris Peau de Soie (2016)- There is a point in every perfumer’s career where I want them to speak to me with a whisper. Working with Philippe Starck, M. Ropion has made a perfume which feels like a bubble which should pop at any moment. Instead Peau de Soie takes iris which encloses synthetic musks and woods. They expand the iris to a powdery translucent globe which enthralls with its fragility.
A Lab on Fire And The World Is Yours (2018)- If there is an abiding theme of the five perfumes I’ve chosen it is creative directors who know how to give a perfumer space to be creative. Creative director Carlos Kusubayashi is another who has found this leeway is a recipe for success. And The World Is Yours brings this list full circle as cumin plays an important role in the top accord. This time there is no softening instead it is used as divider between orange blossom and neroli. As the florals shift to rose and hyacinth the pungent cumin persists until splashdown in a balsamic pool of vanilla and sandalwood. Over the past year I have come to see And The World Is Yours as the spiritual flip side to Kenzo Jengle L’Elephant. Which makes it the right place to end this list.
Disclosure: I purchased bottles of each perfume mentioned.
Fall is coming. Which means it is time to start thinking about my favorite spicy perfumes. One spice carries a fantastic character when it is used in fragrance; clove. It is an ingredient which can be tuned to feel like a bit of incense or tilted to a rougher edge. When used well it is imparts something different from the typical spices you find. Here are five of my favorites.
There was a Diptyque boutique on Newbury St. in Boston. It was always an experience in what niche perfumery was all about. Diptyque as a brand did that right from the start with Diptyque L’Eau. Based on an old English potpourri recipe the clove is the linchpin for all the spices in the top accord before going to a rose and sandalwood base. One of my favorite Holiday scents but I also wear it in October.
My first experience with the smell of cloves was at the end of French clove cigarettes called Kreteks. I was always drawn to it especially since it seemed to be a symbol of personal rebellion for those puffing on them. The perfume which captures this best is Ava Luxe Tabak Kretek. Indie perfumer Serena Ava Goode uses clove, tobacco, cinnamon, and cardamom to produce the scent of a Kretek which doesn’t make me have to inhale smoke.
Clove tends to show up more often in indie releases. Perhaps the best use of it came in Charenton Macerations Christopher Street. Creative director Douglas Bender and perfumer Ralf Schwieger use it to provide a clove orange effect in the heart. Orange blossom and cinnamon round it out. The tobacco on top and the musks below make it one of my favorite fall perfumes.
One of my all-time favorite perfumes is Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant. During the mid-1990’s creative renaissance at Kenzo this was the best of all of them. Creative director Celine Verleure and perfumer Dominique Ropion produced a luxurious spicy perfume by adding in the oiliness of ylang-ylang to an olfactory spice rack. The clove is one of the most prominent notes in this. This perfume is very close to being my all-time Favorite Thing because it is so good. It is one of my rituals to greet the first chilly morning in fall wearing this.
Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur is one of the best Oriental fragrances perfumer Maurice Roucel has produced. It has one of those outsized reputations which it lives up to. M. Roucel also goes the spiced citrus route. By using equal amounts of clove and cinnamon to liven up tangerine it is the more compelling part of the development. The base is sweet vanilla and sandalwood with subtle musk attached. The colder it is the more I smell the clove and cinnamon; which is why it is a cold weather staple.
Looking to add some spice to your fall roatation? Give these five clove standouts a try.
Spring is here right on schedule. Also, right on schedule is the beginning of my rotation of spring favorites to the front of the perfume wardrobe. Most opt for florals and aquatics. I prefer spice perfumes for the cool nights and warm days. One of my favorite shoulder season spices is cardamom. Here are five of my favorite fragrances featuring cardamom.
I can’t be 100% sure but I think the perfume which made me a cardamom fan was 1996’s Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant. Composed by perfumers Dominique Ropion and Jean-Louis Sieuzac under the creative direction of Celine Verleure; Jungle L’Elephant features a rich creamy cardamom among the panoply of spice as clove, cumin, licorice mix with mango, vanilla and amber. Jungle L’Elephant has always been that perfect shoulder season perfume. The equivalent of a lightweight cashmere sweater. It is among my very favorite perfumes, period.
Perhaps one of the oddest cardamom perfumes I own is Heeley Esprit du Tigre. Perfumer James Heeley wanted a fragrance which evoked the classic liniment Tiger Balm. Not your typical inspiration leading to an atypical perfume. A strong camphor and mint opening leads into a strong cardamom, black pepper, and clove heart which recreates the herbal scent of Tiger Balm. Vetiver finishes it with a green flourish. I wear this on the spring mornings which are a little cooler and the days don’t get that warm.
With the new renaissance of colognes cardamom has become one of the more popular ingredients in this trend.
In 2012 there was an entire collection of cologne nouveau from The Different Company all created by Emilie Coppermann with the creative direction of Luc Gabriel. I liked all of them but the one I wear the most is Sienne D’Orange. Mme Copperman uses a greener version of cardamom to go with orange in the top accord. She brilliantly uses carrot as the bridge to orris before finishing with a suede leather accord. This is exactly what imagination can provide to staid archetypes.
The same can be said for Thirdman Eau Contraire which was called Eau Nomade when I purchased it in 2013. Owner-Creative Director Jean-Christophe le Greves wanted a collection which pushed the envelope on cologne architecture. Working with perfumer Bruno Jovanovic this was an impressively realized collection of which Eau Contraire was my favorite. In this case M. Jovanovic used a hefty amount of cardamom to provide contrast to lemon and orange. A very technically adept mixture of various musks provide the development around this trio. This has been one of those perfumes which makes me smile broadly when I wear it.
As mentioned above a greener version of cardamom was beginning to be used by perfumers and I was wanting someone to really go all in with that ingredient. My wish was granted in 2014’s By Kilian Intoxicated as Calice Becker working with creative director Kilian Hennessy made a cup of strong spice infused Turkish coffee. Mme Becker formed a nucleus of strong rich coffee to which she added the green cardamom in a significant quantity so it could stand up to the coffee. It almost has a sappy stickiness in this concentration. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and caramel finish this off. Intoxicated is one of my favorite coffee fragrances but it is the green cardamom which makes that true.
If you’re looking for something to add to your spring fragrance rotation give these cardamom perfumes a try.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.
One of the things I find interesting about writing these pieces is the opportunity to apply complete hindsight when looking back at a perfumer’s career. With the fullness of time’s perspective it is easier to find that moment when the style associated with them first comes to the fore. What is amusing to me as I do this is I often wore these early fragrances and while memorable I can’t say I was prescient enough to know the milestones they represented. In 1996 I picked up a bottle of Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant and this was my vanilla and spice baseline for many years. It would be followed up a year later with Kenzo Jungle Le Tigre which was a brilliant bit of fruity floral wildness. The entire team behind these two perfumes have been involved with some great perfumes in the years since. Over 1996 and 1997 they all intersected in the perfumed jungle.
The creative director for both of these perfumes was Celine Verleure who has gone on to found her own niche perfume line Olfactive Studio. Two perfumers, Dominique Ropion and Jean-Louis Sieuzac collaborated for both of these. M. Sieuzac was part of the team which had created Yves St. Laurent Opium twenty years earlier. M. Ropion was still defining his style. They had both worked together on Dior Dune in 1991 so a working relationship had been created. Together they would create two perfumes that you would never suspect came from Kenzo if you smelled them blind today.
In 1996 Kenzo was still forming its identity and as such I think they gave Mme Verleure a wide latitude to let her perfumers follow their instincts. It would be four years later with the release of FlowerbyKenzo that Kenzo’s aesthetic would crystallize. With Jungle L’Elephant and Jungle Le Tigre Messrs. Ropion and Sieuzac explored the boundaries of Orientals from two differing vectors.
Jungle L’Elephant is the perfume where M. Ropion would display his ability to soften and refine even the most boisterous of notes. Nowhere is that more evident than in the early moments of L’Elephant. If I tell you the top notes are cardamom and cumin I can imagine many already exclaiming, “No Thank You!” Except the perfumers harness these notes and turn them into a soft spicy pillow to lay one’s head down on. None of the sweatiness or rough green quality is here. Instead it is exotic and plush. That would be enhanced as the heart adds in clove and licorice to make the spicy accord more complex, yet still soft. Ylang-ylang and mango provide a fruity floral combo to add contrast. The transition here happens fairly quickly and it leads to a vanilla laden base made warm by cashmeran and amber. This evolution from soft to comfort will return time and again in M. Ropion’s perfumes but it is here that I first noticed it.
Jungle Le Tigre dispenses with the spices and instead chooses to prowl the jungle with a fruity floral vapor trail. The perfumers choose the sour kumquat and they pair it with davana allowing for its characteristic fruity nature to be enhanced. It heads into a heart of osmanthus supported by ylang-ylang. The perfumers make a smart choice to let the leather and apricot character of the osmanthus hold the center of Le Tigre. It sits there full of restrained potential. It all devolves into a slightly sweet spicy woody base. Massoia wood provides the cream and the wood as cinnamon roughs up the edges a bit. The base of Le Tigre is a bold final statement. M. Ropion would refine and alter this architecture in just four years to result in Une Fleur de Cassie as one of the first Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle releases.
M. Ropion has had one of the great perfume portfolios of the last twenty years and if you want to know where it started you need to head into the jungle.
Disclosure: This review was based on bottles I purchased