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.
I must admit I am amused when I receive press packets full of fancy imagery and wordsmithing meant to convey something unique. In just ten years of writing about perfume I can honestly say I have not encountered a new perspective on fragrance within the press release. Sometimes the harder the brand works with all the campaign imagery it is often meant to cover-up something less than groundbreaking. Sometimes, thankfully, I get to try a perfume before getting all the overcooked puffery. This was a good thing for the new collection from designer Philippe Starck and his new brand Starck Paris.
I tried the debut three perfumes when I attended Tranoi Parfums in NYC in September. I had read about them in a couple of trade publications and my interest was piqued by the perfumers M. Starck chose to work with; Dominique Ropion on Peau de Soie, Annick Menardo on Peau D’Ailleurs, and Daphne Bugey on Peau de Pierre. Trying them that day I was interested to wear them because they all had very interesting evolutions on the piece of skin I had them on. Sniffing those patches over the train ride home had me ready to wear them over the next few days. As I did I was fascinated on the delicacy of the work each of these perfumers produced under the creative direction of M. Starck.
M. Starck was inspired to create perfume because his mother owned a perfume shop and he spent many childhood hours there. It was where his appreciation for the impact scent could have blossomed; leading to this collection. That is a beautiful story and I wish the press stopped there because it is enough to explain why and how the collection is designed. Instead there is a tedious slog through pseudo-intellectualist claptrap. Lot of talk about being intellectual and anti-marketing. The new perfumes are not as out there as M. Starck presumes. Also, the idea of not releasing a note list is also not so revolutionary as he thinks. It made me think that these perfumes were different because of the fragile interplay but the components; those I’ve smelled before and in these combinations. Which maybe makes this all semi-avant garde.
Peau de Soie translates as “silk skin”. The brief M. Starck gave M. Ropion was to wrap a traditional masculine with a feminine covering. It is a fabulous combination of musk and wood to represent that male component which is where Peau de Soie opens. Then M. Ropion wraps it in a powdery iris while simultaneously piecing it with a greenish vector to allow the musk and wood the chance to peek out. As I mentioned above this all holds together like a house of cards that feels like a puff of wind will knock it down; except it is sturdier than that lasting for hours.
Peau D’Ailleurs is harder to translate sort of “skin even more so”. Mme Menardo’s brief was to make this the most androgynous of the three. It isn’t clear to me how much the three perfumers collaborated but based on the structure of Peau D’Ailleurs I am going to assume that Mme Menardo knew some of what her compatriots were doing. That’s because there is a recapitulation of the woods from Peau de Soie and the mineral elements from Peau de Pierre. Mme Menardo spins them on an axis of amber and musk. This all comes together to form a kind of dirt accord but one done with so much finesse it is delightful.
Peau de Pierre which translates to “stone skin” is my favorite of the three. This is meant to be the flip side of Peau de Soie as the feminine evolves the masculine. Not sure I’m there with that because the entire perfume is stolidly in smoky woody territory. I am not sure what the feminine is supposed to be represented by as Peau de Pierre opens with a cleverly composed wet stone accord, definitely some geosmin here, but there is also something else keeping it more expansive. It is like a hologram of river stones. Mme Bugey then adds smoke and vetiver again in a very opaque way. What I enjoyed so much about Peau de Pierre is despite the name it is not as solid as a rock instead it is as ephemeral as a breeze.
All three Starck Paris perfumes have over 10 hour longevity and almost zero sillage; they are skin scents, as advertised.
If I discard all of M. Starck’s pretentiousness and return to him as a child sitting in his mother’s perfume shop I see the genesis of this collection. Imagining translucent spheres of scent traveling above his head intercalating themselves into his vision as they expanded and popped that would have prepared me for the gorgeous set of perfumes which make up this debut collection.
Disclosure; This review was based on samples provided by Starck Paris.