Since March, I have been on a scent search. I have no idea what sparked it. My old cologne from L’Occitane seemed to have turned. It was time for a change, anyway. I have been searching high and low. I’ve sampled scents from Creed, CK, 4711, Parfums de Marly, Acqua di Parma and more. It’s been quite the rollercoaster! The search has slid open a festooned door into an alternative New York: Shopping New York. Fragrances are sold in surprising places like drug stores and “spiritual” shops, and fragrance boutiques bloom in the most fashionable parts of Manhattan.
On Greenwich Avenue, there is a hidden gem of a dive bar that I sometimes visit for a beer or two. Until a week ago, I had no idea that next door, through a heavy door -a magical door- is a Frederic Malle Boutique. How can I describe the shop? Unlike a normal boutique, it’s dark and metallic, and there’s seating on a cushioned, curved bench which conceals you from window shoppers. There was an open curtain to “the back” which revealed a beautiful yard “for special events”. The shop feels like a waiting room in a fancy garage to bide time as your MacLaren is serviced.
Tess, the experienced saleswoman, was finishing up some business, a Midtown apartment delivery, which allowed me to soak in the place. I smelled some candles- Russian Nights stood out. The scents of the candles were complex and interesting. Her task finished, I asked Tess to give me a sense of the house of Malle. She insisted that we should smell no more than three perfumes at this visit, chosen from the island in the middle of the small space crowded with identical bottles. I’m thinking, “Lead the way, Tess!” Since the beginning of my search, giving myself over to the experience has been much of the fun.
Before sampling, Tess wrote the name of each scent in tidy cursive on the card-sized sampling paper. The first was a crowd pleaser: Musc Ravageur. A date night tour-de-force. Dark and spicy. Vetiver Extraordinaire was next to be sprayed on the heavy ivory colored card. This scent was more my style. Gentle, long lasting and grassy; here was a handsome scent. The next sample made me feel like perfume could be something more than perfume: Rose & Cuir. Tess explains that the House of Malle allows the perfume designer, the “nose”, freedom to create a scent of their choosing. A grand opportunity is given the creative noses to have the means to make… art?
Salvador Dali has a painting that is simultaneously a portrait of his wife and a portrait of Lincoln. As you linger in front of the painting, there is Gala seen from behind, naked and peering into a dreamscape ocean through a cruciform window. Looking at the canvas from across the room, a portrait of Lincoln is revealed. Her head becomes his eye; the window his face. Lincoln is out-of-focus, but recognizable. Rose & Cuir contains no rose in the fragrance, and I could smell no leather (cuir). Yet, I was made to believe the perfume contained rose. Up close Rose & Cuir is sour. From away it smells like a rose. Dali would be impressed. When I first smelled it, it reminded me of what? It was there… a memory from any hot Arkansas summertime afternoon of my childhood… a surprise- it smelled like old garden hose. As a kid, play time was uninterrupted by drinking water from the outside spigot. Sipping water from the hose, my nose was close to the source: water and sour brass and rubber. Rose & Cuir. I have smelled nothing like it in a perfume.
Tess very kindly gave me some samples of the three scents we had tried. When I sprayed Rose and Cuir on my skin it was sour. Nothing but sour. Frederic Malle makes long-lasting, luxurious scents. Over the day, the sour note never waned. The scent changed as the day wore on, but the brassiness dominated. I don’t like it at all, but I love it. It made me aware of the world in a whole new way. After smelling this artwork, this masterpiece, my perspective has changed. I have read books that have made me think differently. Music has changed my life through performance. And now, a perfume I don’t like to wear has opened me up to the possibilities of another sensual world to be discovered on both sides of heavy, gilt doors.
Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle 94 Greenwich Ave New York, NY 10011