Wednesday, January 13, 2010

John Varvatos, Essentric Molecule, and How I Got Into Perfume.

The first fragrance I ever bought was John Varvatos. For someone heavily into perfume now, to the point where I can identify the smells of individual chemical components in certain fragrances, this is a bit of an odd scent to choose, insofar as it’s so ordinary. It’s not particularly amazing, nor does it have ay cult following, nor is it particularly important. It’s nice – with non-offensive fruity top rush with a spicy hit, but smells a little cheap and needy. It’s unessential, I guess is what I’m getting at.

The story of how I came to own a bottle of John Varvatos, a perfume I am pretty indifferent to, is more interesting then the fragrance itself.

One night working in the bookshop, a day before Mother’s Day a few years ago, an attractive young woman approached the counter asking for recommendations. She was well spoken (if somewhat nervous) and sublimely pretty. She stole my heart in an instant – to the extent that one can have one's heart stolen by a customer when you work in retail (which is a lot – but you’ve probably forgotten them by the next day). She bought a safe gift, the transaction went through, and my romantic pessimism assumed I would never see her again. Sure enough, by the next day I had forgotten about her.

Jump ahead five months. In that time I had quit honours, decided I was never going to be a writer due to a lack of both drive and talent, decided I was going to become a brilliant and renowned product designer instead, and had my first and only panic attack, after a kiss attempt went rebuffed after a dull first date. I was in one of those empty parts of my life – having left one destination but not yet arrived at another, wandering through that desert at average speed in search of its end, its break into society, or at least an oasis. At this point, she came into work again. It took me a while to remember her, but I picked up on the nervous-yet-rehearsed way of speaking and the infallible posture. I decided, despite that recent panic attack, that I would ask her out on a date, lest I live to regret it. Thing is, I felt it unprofessional to do it with other customers around – so I devised a plan: if she came up to the counter while the store was empty, I would ask her out, plain and simple. If she did so while there were others around, I would pass on a charming note. I got writing on the note. This is what I came up with:

Hi – this is kind of lame and embarrassing, and I don’t like to do things in note form because it’s too indirect, but there are people around and it would be awkward, so: did you want to go out on a date sometime? I should let you know I am a frightfully un-cool man, but get to know me and you’ll discover that I’m actually wonderful.
- Kita, 04XX XXX XXX.

I left this for a while in my pocket, then impulsively tore it up and wrote another, less neurotic one:

A date sometime? – Kita, 04XX XXX XXX.

Thankfully, I tore this one up too, and she approached the counter alone, and I asked her out on a date, and, with visible glee and surprise on our faces, we exchanged numbers. Unprofessionally, I spent the rest of my shift texting her, and almost forgot to close the store. If anyone I work with is reading, let me state: I was young.

The date was curious. We flirted, but the conversation was terribly contrived – we were both clearly using up our ‘Things which would sound interesting on a first date’ lines. But we bumped arms affectionately as we walked, and followed up the coffee with a few drinks at the local.

In an odd moment, it was decided that we should air out anything the other should know – about our lives, and what the other might be getting into. I offered my troublesome relationship with my father, as well as my fairly long history of depression. She offered the death of her best friend, and her previous boyfriend, who had left her at the airport some 4 months earlier, who was a semi-succesful (and now much more successful) writer, and was due to land back in town in a few hours. She was picking him up from the airport. I must admit: she won that round.

We went back to her house. She invited me in for a hot chocolate. We sat on her kitchen floor because, apparently, this is what she always did. Her house was dimly lit and impeccably kept – it made my house look like some wretched sty. It was heavily ornate, with not a trace of dust on anything. After we finished our drinks, she took me into the bathroom to show me something which would, in retrospect, become a defining moment in my life – one of those points that don’t seem particularly important at the time, but later reveal their affect with the aid of distance. Eager to make myself appear to be some kind of designer hot-shot (despite knowing very little about design beyond what I imagined) I had talked about all the things I had been designing – several of which were perfume bottles. I liked the perfume bottle as a design object, because its required function is very little, and the vast majority of its purpose is of aesthetic communication. It was like the architecture of the hand-held world (the fact that many architects have designed perfume bottles seems to suggest a connection). With this in mind, she revealed to me her medicine cabinet – and behind its doors, rows and rows of perfume bottles. They were an odd collection of art nouveau crystal shapes and sly, modern rectangles with minimal prints. I can’t remember what they specifically were, but knowing what I know of perfume now, some looked Guerlian, and there was definitely some Chanel. I only smelled one: out of curiosity of what it would smell like on my skin, she sprayed a healthy dose of one on my left wrist. According to her, it smells differently, depending on the person. I remembered this fragrance: it was Molecule 01 by Essentric Molecule. I might have got the number wrong, but to be honest, apart from a few top notes, the Essentric Molecules are pretty much the same. It was a strange scent which to me, at first, smelled like freshly cut capsicum, which eventually turned into a dry, pencil shaving smell. It was a fragrance I would smell again and again, and eventually scrub off my repulsed arms some 10 months later.

If you’ve never smelt an Essentric Molecule fragrance then they’re difficult to describe. This is because they’re very minimalist compared to most modern perfumes, but their essential ingredient isn’t based on any smell you could recognize right off the bat – you would never say ‘Hey, they used grapefruit!’, or even ‘This smells like grandmothers!’. This is because their main ingredient is a fragrance chemical by the name of Iso E Super. Now you might actually know this smell – it’s in a lot of fragrances adding effects here and there and lending an almost sharp, almost grainy (but still so light it floats) wooden texture. This makes the fragrance almost post-modern, insofar as it’s a fragrance which pays tribute to the act of making fragrance in itself, by basing itself so heavily around this single, artificial note.

The effect of an Essentric Molecule fragrance is odd. At first, you wonder what it is – so familiar yet really undefinable without using works such as ‘like’ and ‘sorta’. It is woody, but not any kind of wood you’ve ever actually experienced – it’s a light, sandy coloured grain, a bit like balsa wood, but denser. Unlike most other fragrances though, this concept of “familiar but different” is so bizarre because it is constructed via so few elements – most perfumes work in another way: Comme Des Garcons 2, for example, smells like a “future flower”, a very beautiful, very Japanese, very technological, very refined flower, and it does this by mixing numerous florals together and also utilizing sumi ink, which lends it its alien charm. Essentric fragrances though have their alien quality via only one main note. As such, it is initially interesting, but ends up feeling flat very very quickly. At first it may even be beautiful, until you see it has no depth at all, and as the day goes on, and it stays on you powerfully (it is impossible to wash off), you start to spite it more and more, for essentially just singing the same note, over and over again.

Regardless of my less then stellar introduction to perfume, this was the point where I, for the first time in my life, started to think about perfume as an actual *thing*. She went on to light scented candles which smelt as fruity as they did waxy (though still very nice), and we sat in her living room. She played on her keyboard and I reclined on her sofa. After a while of not talking much, I started to wonder what I was doing there. I was certainly not going to make any kind of physical move: for one thing, she was off to pick up her ex-boyfriend in a very short time, and for another, I was afraid if I were rebuffed, like damned clockwork, I would have another panic attack. In retrospect, when we did talk, it was like we were trying our best to make it all seem meaningful and romantic. I played a very sweet act of a very sweet lad who was falling for a very sweet girl. Unfortunately, I fell for my own act.

The night finished, many hours after it had started, as she finally had to get ready to drive to the airport. We hugged tight, and she assured me she’d see me again soon. As I walked home in the cool spring air I texted her:

‘Bathed in your scent still, it is a warm walk home.’

I realize, only now as I write, that the vast majority of my romantic texts have been vastly unappreciated.

For the next few weeks, we would see each other here and there. She’d invite me around to her house, she introduced me to her friends, I introduced her to mine, we’d have drinks, and made CDs for each other. It felt like we were becoming some sort of couple – if I looked at it only on paper, and never felt the long silences in our conversations. At some point, I decided I needed to be wearing a fragrance. Since I was after a girl that was obsessed with smell, this was of utmost importance. With a spending limit of $150, I walked into town determined to not return home empty handed. My plan was simple: walk into an expensive menswear store, admit that I know nothing at all about fragrance, try everything, work by their suggestions, and but whatever came out on top. For the first time in my adult life, I asked for help in a clothing store, and abandoned all pretense of knowing what I was doing. I tried many, but they all smelled too alcoholic (this was because I was smelling them too quickly, and was not giving time for the most volatile of alcoholic smells to evaporate and reveal the actual perfume). This made choosing a perfume difficult, but eventually I came across one that the woman their noted their boss wore – it was thick, drippingly sweet and spicy. It was the exact opposite of what I wanted – I wanted something light and cutting – but perhaps simply bored or unenthused, I decided to buy it based on her recommendation and the fact I didn’t hate it. It was John Varvatos, and its empty bottle lies face down on top of my bookshelf. I would start to appreciate it more with time, and when, many months later, I opened it up to smell it again, I felt an intense rush back to the past, of me dousing myself in this stuff and walking over to her house, and I felt all the emotions again: the fear, the stress, the elation, and finally, the despair.

She went back to her much more successful writer boyfriend only a few weeks after that first date. She admitted this to me during a friend’s housewarming party I invited her to, shortly after I tried (and failed) to kiss her. I should have gotten angrier – asked her what she was doing with me then if she was still in love with him – indeed, was back with him, asked her, simply: what are you doing here, at this party, by my side? But I didn’t. Instead, I opted to forgive her right away, and tell her she bore no responsibility, and instead, for this reason, I was consumed by my own unhappiness. Eventually, with nothing to hold me back, this lead to despair. I still have trouble understanding why I got as bad as I did, but regardless of the reason pretty soon I hit the single darkest time of my life. Concerned friends were trying to pull me out here and there, but the real breakthrough would not happen till a few months later – seeing her again at an art show, and realising, as she talked quickly and nervously to me, how I imagined most of the things I liked about her, and ignored everything that I didn’t. She was still one of the prettiest women I had seen in my life, but, like most of the lines between us on that first date, it was, like an Essentric Molecule fragrance, mostly surface.

Eventually I forgot about her. Then one day I opened my envelope from to smell the samples I ordered that month. Among them was Essentric Molecule no.1, and it all, even just very briefly, came rushing back. I scrubbed my wrists under the bathroom facet till they were red and raw.


Despite it all though, I am eternally thankful I met her. Because of her I not only learnt so much, discovered so much about myself, I also discovered this strange perfume thing I devote so much of my time to now. If we ever see each other in the street (like we do a lot), and if either has the guts to stop and talk (like we never do), I must remember to thank her for this reason, and this reason alone.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mystery Fragrance.

A woman came into work today wearing the most alluring thing I've ever smelt. It reminded me of lines of mid-morning sunlight cutting into a living room, and those floating specks of dust you see now illuminated, and of dry, unvarnished wooden floorboards, and of saliva and lips, and peeks of underwear under clothes, and of being 11 years old and in lust.

It had a very peculiar saliva-like note which seemed to come from a rotting rose or the like. It might have had a type musk I wasn't overly familiar with (it had that musk-y depth and texture). But it never felt like it was trying to be overtly sexual or even attractive - it didn't announce itself at all, only had a small sillage and stuck very close to the skin.

The most attractive people are those who seem not to see how attractive they really are - thereby, nothing they do is an act or pretence. Attractiveness is merely a casual by-product of their other traits, but one which does not concern or affect them. They are completely innocent to their own charms, and this blissful, un-cynical, unfamiliarity is just so intensely desirable. Because they don't see it themselves, we feel, perhaps a little arrogantly, that we then are privy to this area of their personality so intimate that they themselves do not have access to it. It intrigues without obtuseness. This is what this fragrance was.

I don't know what this fragrance was. I didn't ask her what it was.

You know why I didn't ask her what it was? Honestly? It was because I was afraid she wasn't wearing any fragrance at all, and it was merely her natural smell, and that would mean I would be completely and terrifyingly in love with this woman, this stranger, this person who I would never meet (or smell) again. Le sigh.