With a New Perfume Called Faeces, Where Can Fragrance Go From Here?
Contemporary cult perfumes are changing the fragrance landscape, and to my mind, not necessarily in a good way. While I'm the last person to criticise provocation as an art form, I think that naming a perfume 'shit' is just a bridge too far. The new perfume from Orto Parisi called Stercus, (classical Latin for faeces) even looks like excrement, brown in colour in case you missed the reference.
Ew, you know? At $195 for 50 ml, it's an expensive joke. The perfume's creator, Alessandro Gualtieri, explains his intent in a self-described Manifesto: "The parts of the body that carry more smell are those where more soul is collected. The strong smells have become unpleasant to us because the excess of the soul is intolerable to the extent that our innate animalism is repressed and breaking from civilisation."
Reviews of Stercus range from vague and admiring to contemptuous. One man's faeces is another man's, I don't know, not-feces. Didn't Lady Gaga promise that her first fragrance would smell like blood and semen? At least she was polite enough to call it Fame, and it turned out to be a fruity floral. It was a big hit, with more than three million bottles sold, so it can't be too bad, whatever it smells like.
Shopping for a new fragrance is no longer a case of choosing between subtle or heavy, spicy or sweet. Perfume houses are springing up everywhere, often with a DIY aesthetic, and notes that sound intriguing but obscure. Maison Margiela's Replica collection purports to capture a specific moment and place, like Jazz Club. This one is meant to conjure a cosy jazz club in Brooklyn..." an anthology of classic notes and coppery tones, between deep armchairs and a handful of bar stools, with subdued lighting reflected on the piano where some cocktails linger, wafting their liquory notes." Each bottle "features a 100% cotton label, which is printed using black ink text and resembles the tags found in the Replica couture collection." Too much information and yet, not enough.
I was thrilled to learn of a perfume called Debaser, inspired by the Pixies' song. How could that immortal song be captured in scent? According to reviews, it smells like fig and coconut. One disappointed reviewer was reminded of a pina colada. Of course, fragrance is subjective, but I don't see the connection to Black Francis, and I'm not paying $175 for a song reference. The same company has a perfume called Burning Barbershop, with notes of spearmint, lime, hemlock spruce, lavender absolute, Turkish rose, burnt oil, vanilla, and hay.
Niche fragrance houses seem intent on weird or unpleasant combinations of ingredients, but some deliver a scent that at least meets your expectation. Le Labo perfumes each consist of a word and a number: the most prominent note, and the quantity of notes in the composition. Rose 31 is irresistible. It smells like roses, but informed noses will discern cumin, olibanum, cedar, amber, and a bunch of other stuff. It's one of my personal favourites, but I'm sad to say that it's too ephemeral for my purposes. I like a fragrance to last all day and to leave a trail behind me.
A fragrance is a potent mix of nostalgia and aspiration. Most of us dread smelling like our grandma, but most of us respond favourably to vanilla. Sometimes, a whiff of a forgotten scent will trigger overwhelming emotion. If your first lover wore English Leather, you'll go weak at the knees when you encounter it twenty years later. If you had a bad experience with someone wearing Calvin Klein Obsession, you'll probably gag at the first hint of it. Some fragrances are inexplicably uplifting, and some are disgusting. Sometimes a perfume you loved for years becomes an annoyance, like jeans that once fit perfectly and now make you feel like a bloated sausage. I've read that it's best to shop alone when you're looking for a new perfume, but I like to shop with my sister, whose nose is a genius. It can distinguish notes of fennel, pear, powder, even turpentine, in a fragrance that confuses me. She once detected a hint of elephant dung in a French perfume, and she was right! As kids, we were allowed to feed the elephants at the zoo. Their cage had a wonderful, earthy, grassy smell...like 1000, by Jean Patou.
From elephant dung to faeces, we have come full circle. A fragrance is not what it used to be. I doubt we will ever go back to a single, signature perfume, not with branding being what it is today. If you're looking for something avant-garde, this is your time. If you're hoping to find a fragrance that makes you feel like yourself, only more attractive, you might need to shop with your sister. Or just buy Flowerbomb, which works for nearly everyone.