BIGGER BADDER BOLDER – Why powerhouse perfumes are making a comeback

What were you wearing thirty years ago? We asked industry insiders and some of our favourite perfume people to cast their minds back and take a moment to reflect on their journey in fragrance.

For me, it’s 1988 and something’s in the air – a spirit of change, with Comic Relief being launched and a tribute concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday at Wembley stadium – but mostly what’s in the air, is the smell of Elnett hairspray and a cloud of Estée Lauder’s Knowing perfume (both of which I’ve ‘borrowed’ from my mum). Subtlety wasn’t what we were going for back then, with acid-wash jeans and crimped, backcombed hair, any fragrance worth its while had to fight its way forward for attention.

The following years I billowed forth great fugs of Cacharel’s Loulou, Rochas Femme and Guerlain’s Samsara – desperately trying to cultivate an air of Oriental mystery, along with my Rimmel Black Cherry stained lips and exotic earrings large enough for a small child to use as a swing. But, little did I know such opulent pleasures were to be halted, for the 90s were coming, bringing ‘the natural look’ (quelle horreur) and along with them, a veritable wave of watery, beachy, calone-heavy ‘acquatic’ scents that were supposedly shared with one’s boyfriend. What salty-fresh hell was this?

I’ve never been one to stick rigidly to fashion rules, especially where fragrance is concerned, and so although I tried the ‘nude lipstick’ look (hideous: made me look like I had a liver problem) and spent hours ironing my hair poker straight, where my scent was concerned, I stuck to the gutsy, ball-breaking genres I already knew I loved. Along with the aquatics had come those strange perfumes seemingly for people who didn’t really like perfume at all, which shyly whispered: don’t look at me, don’t notice at me at all. Not for my tribe, who longed for fragrances you could wield like a weapon or wear as a thick cloak of disguise! I rolled out the bunting for the dawning of the niche revolution during the noughties. There have long been independent and ‘small press’ types of perfume Houses, but suddenly there was a kicking back against boring with a spirit similar to that of punk rock, and everything seemed to get more interesting again. Thank the fragrance gods!

Just as avant garde trends inevitably filter through to high-street looks, and the cyclical nature of fashion means a re-discovering of that, which came before, so too does the fragrance world move, and the past few years have seen us edging closer to fully embracing the bigger, badder, bolder scents we tend to yearn for in challenging times. Is it because they remind us how things once were and give us hope they can make us feel that way again? I personally think it’s far more than nostalgia that’s powering this rise of powerhouse perfumes.

Consumer surveys continually report that fragrance buyers are looking for scents that last the whole day, that smell unique (even ‘unusual’) and help them stand out from the crowd. Cue ramped-up versions of originals proudly emblazoned with monikers boasting of their intensity or exploring a deeper, darker side of their character. Those who still favour those ‘close to the skin’ kind of fragrances may want to take baby steps up to some of these, lest they quail in fear at their voracity, but it’s well worth training yourself up to take the plunge – trying a Parfum version of a favourite Eau de Toilette or a more shadow-filled ‘noire’ take on a classic – because the payoff is big-time. Your hair may not be teased into a towering bouffant plume anymore, but wearing these will make you feel like you’re standing taller and brighter, in a badass way. And that can only be a good thing.

SuperstitiousFrédéric Malle Superstitious

When this was launched, I knew the tide had truly changed my way. It’s a monster. I mean a beautifully composed one – how could it fail to be with that master of seemingly effortless, seamless blending, Dominique Ropion, as the Perfumer? – but a beast, all the same. Jasmine’s turned up to eleven and then some, with all the inherent funk you’d expect of this unapologetically narcotic white flower, and a fizziness of aldehydes that practically jumps out of the bottle and slaps you around the face. A collaboration with designer Alber Elbaz, whom Malle has apparently admired for many years, Elbaz told British Vogue they wanted Superstitious to be, “the perfume of a dress, the silhouette that lingers after a woman has left the room”. And oh boy, it lingers. There’s a fuzzy peach-skin note in the heart that puts me in mind of those vintage Chypres I loved, but it’s relentlessly dry, not sweetly juicy, and buoyed by a sense of spilled Champagne and twisted sheets from the night-before’s shenanigans. Not for the faint of heart, it does eventually settle down to a vetiver-laden base, but it’s many hours before you’ll forget the debauchery, and all the better for it.

Etat Libre d’Orange Une AmouretteUne-amourette

Renowned for his figure-hugging ‘bandage dresses’ and the statuesque stars who clamour to his boutique’s doors, there’s an echo of that shameless celebration of women’s bodies in here, but intriguingly, entangled with a masculine oomph.

Entangled is definitely the correct word, as Mouret announced he wanted the overall effect to be, “…smelling the other one [your lover’s skin] after you’ve had sex”. Gracious. Little wonder there’s a mingling of juices, so to speak, with overtly feminine muskiness tempered by neroli, bouquets of white flowers set against hazy drifts of church incense and beneath it all, the sense of a soapy Cologne’s freshness and something altogether more bristly with a growl. Now here’s a subtext of ‘sharing’ I can get behind.

LaliqueLalique Encre Noire à l’Extrême

A powered-up version of their classic go-to vetiver scent, this time that dominant note’s softened to a purr, to allow a gently snarling smokiness to lure you further into the darkness – and I’d say, don’t think twice, just follow. Dusky incense lends an inky depth to the heart, and with a duo of vetiver used from Haiti and Java, that earthiness is shot through with a salty note that kind of seasons all the ingredients it touches. In the base, a trail of patchouli, benzoin and sandalwood will mark your presence after you leave the room.
It’s in the men’s range, but another thing not to think twice about is nicking this and making it your own.

 

WonderlyHouse of Oud Wonderly

Imagine bare feet on warm sand, then the incredulity of snow falling in the desert, delicate flakes frosting your eyelashes as you gaze upwards at white flurries melting on the amber dunes. Combining the sweet, sticky warmth of myrrh with the airy transparency and powdered elegance of iris, top notes of apricot and goji berry are joyfully exuberant, while the cool white flower heart flutters to a base of decadent Madagascan vanilla, sandalwood from Mysore, Italian Iris and that treacle-like myrrh. Part of their Desert Day Collection, it feels like you’re a nineties supermodel striding through a cinematic advert for some exotically flavoured ice cream.

 

 

VikingCreed Viking

Their first men’s fragrance since the launch of the blockbusting Aventus in 2010, this one had some big boots to fill, and doesn’t disappoint.

Romantically roistering, this fiery concoction explodes like a rocket from the bottle and just keeps on going. Inspired by Viking longships – “a symbol of voyage and undeniable perseverance”, this bracingly woody citrus fragrance incredibly features 80% natural ingredients. Freshly ground, bitingly resonant peppercorn melds to the heat of Indian sandalwood and the wet-earthiness of Haitian vetiver, and the perseverance isn’t just in the characters of those craftsmen who made the ships. I think you can probably smell this from the moon, and god it’s great.

 

Chanel

 

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Intense

Seventeen years after it was first launched, Perfumer Oliver Polge turns up the heat and constructs this composition around a deliberate overdose of the patchouli leaves, but delivered with a silky sheen to the woodiness through a luminous extraction of this notoriously rich note. Sicilian orange and Calabrian bergamot are amplified, but fleetingly, with swags of rose and garlands of jasmine still noticeably there – so lovers of the original need not weep into their monogrammed hankies. A hugely resinous amber base, loaded with absolutes of tonka bean and creamy vanilla, manages to allow room for the heart and top notes to continue their dance throughout, and it’s tribute to Polge’s mastery that each element can be identified, but yet has it’s edges blurred so you can’t quite tell where one begins and another ends. Make no mistake: this Mademoiselle has taken her gloves off, unbuttoned her dress, and means business. Definitely one to wear when you demand to not be forgotten.

 

TenderMiller Harris Tender

For a project that entailed two Perfumers working from the same brief – to be inspired by a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work, Tender is the Night – Bertrand Duchaufour’s version is a tempestuous, beautifully lugubrious swirling of black ink drops on white leather, warm saffron and woody geranium on a shimmering, golden-amber base. The pink pepper C02 extraction and aldehydes prevent any sense of muddiness and somehow hold each note suspended in the air for a time, like motes of dust caught in a sunbeam.

For me the most memorable of these is the most incredible blast of green hyacinth in the opening, which shimmers and twinkles to cyclamen, rich incense and an almost metallic base. Impossible to ignore, you’ll experience something new every single time you wear it.

 

MFK oudMaison Francis Kurkdjian Oud Silk Mood Eau de Parfum

Francis’s Kurkdjian has long had a love affair with oud – that rambunctious ingredient that can (in the wrong hands) knock you dead from fifty paces.

Interestingly, though, this is a pared-down version of the original Extrait de Parfum, and yet in some ways it feels as though the tendrils spread themselves wider still, like scented ghosts that haunt an entire space rather than cling. Voluptuous, textural roses are woven through with freshly planed Laotian wood, a zing of Italian bergamot becalmed by Indian papyrus and Moroccan blue chamomile before a hypnotic dose of hedoine embraces you and swirls, beguilingly, in a mysterious dance that will only end when your head hits the pillow.

 

Chloe NomadeChloé Nomade

“My colours come from Egypt,” Gaby Aghion, the founder of Chloé, would apparently say when asked from whence her inspiration sprang, and there’s a real waft of that rich exoticism found in Nomad. Wandering bohemians who dream of cavorting across the continents could do far worse than pick up a bottle of this sassy, self-assured sophistication in fragrant form. Perfumer Quentin creates an irresistible vision of escape with succulently ripe mirabelle plum served iced with a heady breeze of freesia. It makes me want to up my eyeliner game, load up on heavy bangles and waft about in lusciously coloured silks. And why not?

 

 

TempoDiptyque Tempo

Surely a classic in the making, Tempo marks one of a duo of fragrances released to celebrate Diptyque’s 50th birthday, harking back to the heady days of 60s psychedelia – take three bottles of patchouli? Absolutely, if they’re a trio of remarkably differing extractions, each sourced from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Displaying all the multi-faceted characters of patchouli, it leaves the grime behind, with a whipped chocolate nuttiness and the dry crackle of fallen leaves. The slightly bitter, almost medicinal note of mate keeps it surprisingly effervescent, especially when combined with rosy pink pepper and the weird greenness of violet leaves. Ditch all ideas of hippy hangouts because this is a refined, contemporary composition that remains firmly in the modern era, while still packing a punch.

 

Elisabethan RosePenhaligon’s Elisabethan Rose

Travelling back far further than thirty years in its outlook – complete with a fabulous ruffled collar on the bottle in place of their usual ribbon bow-ties – don’t worry about this being a museum piece. As ever, Penhaligon’s do a sterling job of incorporating historical inspiration, but delivering it in a timely, current and utterly wearable way. I can’t recall ever having sniffed hazelnut leaf in a fragrance before, but it’s something I want more of if it behaves like it does here. Adding a kick of spiciness with cinnamon and almond oil, there’s an almost-but-not-quite hint of gourmand behind basketfuls of centifolia rose and rose absolute, fresh like raspberries rather than dusty and dreary. Red lily adds an addictive, vampish quality that has me walking with a regal swagger.

 

In a world where younger generations are growing up with infinite social media channels and dressing head-to-toe in one designer is so, so passé, it seems that everyone is suddenly aware of trying to create their own space within this make-it-up-as-we-go-along confusing world, and inhabiting their own ‘brand’ within it. The concept of a ‘signature scent’ is just about dead in the water, because nobody wants to be forced to choose just one way of expressing his or her personality. Similarly, we crave uniqueness – something ‘different’ – and a way of being truly noticed among the crowd. It’s always fascinating to ask what someone was wearing way back when – you get a sense of how their tastes were formed, and perhaps a hint of something they’d like to hark back to in more modern interpretation. All hail, then, this new breed of bravely bombastic fragrances that you can wear, like shoulder-pads in a bottle with every spritz. And black cherry lipsticks are back, too. Praise be.