Perfume expertista Audrey Robinovitz reviews this year's apexes and nadirs in fragrance.
As someone uniquely predisposed to both cold-weather romanticism and overspending, December is one of my favorite months. As winter finally settles in, there seems to be an unavoidable urge to not only settle down and bundle up, but to foresee the arrival of the new year with solemn reflection on the events of years past. Needless to say, a lot has happened in perfumery lately. A quickly-changing industry seems at once completely incapable of accommodating the new generation of prosumers and uniquely qualified to metamorphose in new and exciting ways. Whether you’re looking for a holiday indulgence or are merely invested in the state of the industry, it can be hard to skim the cream from the top of the milk, so to speak. Fear not, Dear Reader, for as surely as I will openly sob when any choral interpretation of “Silent Night” comes on in a grocery store, I am here to provide you with what I feel to have been the most important releases of this year — and my favorite fragrances that made 2023 smell enchanting.
Immediate points for naming a bottle of perfume after an Anaïs Nin short story collection. Indeed, Eris Parfums’ Barbara Herman is no stranger to cross-textual allusion in her perfumes, but what she often lacks is subtlety. Given that she has quite literally written the book on provocation in perfume, it makes sense that Eris’ releases are often loud, ostentatious, and sexy. The humid and tropical Delta of Venus, however, marks perhaps both her most naturalistic and her most crowd-pleasing release. This is not to say that it lacks sleaze. The principal accord here is one of juicy, ripened Guava. Touched up with jasmine and bergamot, it wears sticky, wet, and narcotic. I am generally not the biggest fan of both citruses and tropical fragrances, but somehow the combination herein completely won me over. I share a similar sort of affinity for Jorum Studios’ Paradisi — perhaps a sister to Venus in its dirty-fruit bacchanalia. That said, the erotic target here is obvious: given its eponymous Victorian euphemism, something in the steamy indolic undercurrent to Venus smells like pussy. For all Gen Z’s cringe-worthy attempts at “vabbing” — here is a far classier alternative. To drive him, or most likely her wild, try three sprays of Delta of Venus on the inner knees — and I promise as the High Priestess and Oracle of New Amsterdam hath wrote: that c*nt getting eaten.
Another allusive (and elusive) release, this time to a Stereolab French-language rarity. Sweet and tart in all the right places, Changer was designed to capture the swooning ephemerality of Lætitia Sadier’s voice. It is mainly raspberry, overlaid with a cosmetic rose-violet accord and musk. I confess I am not normally a fan of the exceedingly fruity in perfume, but something sentimentally sweet and somewhat musty in Changer has won me over. To my nose, it smells like cheap raspberry schnapps, teenage escapades by the rec center pool, the gas station perfume of your first girlfriend — all things remembered sweetly. Wear this to bed to lose yourself in dreams of imagined nostalgia, or just to the grocery store to smell like that scene in The Virgin Suicides where they drink under the bleachers at prom.
I know, I know. It brings me little pleasure to admit that Le Labo is still capable of making good perfume. Coming off the tails of major price increases, marketing explosions, and the Santal 33-ification of Iso E Super oil bomb Another 13, the contrarian in me doesn’t want to concede that the newfound hype surrounding the brand hasn’t clouded their ability to crank out substantive releases. But I must remain steadfast to my nose, and I know charming perfume when I smell it. Principally, Le Labo did something with lavender I hadn’t expected from their initial announcement. A part of me had already written it off because I had planned for them to supplement their hyper-consciously nonbinary line of unisex woods with a decisively masculine fougère, to match the feminine florals found in Lys 41 and Jasmin 17. What I had not anticipated, however, was Lavande 31 having more in common with Comme des Garçons’ gorgeous ode to soapmaking Marseille, than to Drakkar Noir.
Thanks to the overwhelming presence of neroli and musk, this lavender has been supplemented into a soapy-fresh laundry scent befitting even the most hypochondriac clean girlie.
I once heard from a friend of mine that Tubereuse 40, the New York City exclusive, was supposed to evoke steam emitting from city laundromats. Given this insider information, I genuinely wonder if they had not somehow accidentally switched these two perfumes, because where Tubereuse is a grotesquely overpriced and generally disappointing orange blossom outshone by Fleur d'Oranger 27, Lavande 31 actually does smell like soap in an extremely comforting way. There is eventually lavender, into the drydown, but it appears here far more Sleepytime Tea and scented hot pack than in Serge Lutens’ earthen and astringent Encens et Lavande or other exemplars in lavender realism. All things considered, if you’re looking for a solidly performing comforting signature and you have some money to spend, this would definitely be worth a try.
Easily one of my favorite perfume names of all time, Poems earns its place among the ranks of Universal Flowering’s best offerings. Primarily spotlighting the interplay between ginger, condensed milk, and vetiver, it immediately evokes a very specific scent association to me of the ginger-coconut hard candy found in pan-Asian grocery stores. The opening is at once spicy and sweet, managing to dodge the repetitive autumnal gourmand associations while also smelling like the perfect thing to wear as the weather gets cold. Vetiver is perhaps one of the notes in perfume that has taken me the longest to truly fall in love with, but thanks to a number of notable vetivers that have captured my attention (Fzotic Vetiverissimo, Marissa Zappas Petrichor, and Jovoy Incident Diplomatique, principally) I have grown to appreciate the smoky, earthy, and borderline savory facets of this precious root. In Poems, this association is reified via the supporting accord of thick, creamy milk. As is the case with many different Universal Flowering releases, this perfume defies stable categorization – there is very little on the market that truly smells like this. Like ginger snaps dunked in milk and then thrown onto the ground, this perfume is best worn on a brisk morning — and testifies to how innovative this year has been for perfume, from the very beginning.
Another case of a very specific genre of smells reaching its peak: I have yet to smell a whiskey perfume better than this. Sure the association of boozy notes has found great triumphs (I am forever drawn to the cognac in Tears, the metallic cider in Rosé All Daé, the rum in Or du Serail) – but this is straight-up Scottish Lagavulin 16. In fact, when Leslie buys Ron a trip to the distillery on Parks and Recreation, and he wanders the Isle of Islay among tender sheep and rolling Scottish hills, I imagine this is what he smells like. The key player here is malt, which adds a specific character to the delicate vanilla — evoking perhaps the inside of an ice cream shop or the eau de toilette formulation of Diptyque’s Eau Duelle. When combined with general boozy notes and lactones, this becomes a photorealistic depiction of an aged barrel of malt whiskey, haunted by the ghost of a Scottish child who died mysteriously on the grounds of the distillery.
This one was also a surprise to me. In fact, I believe upon first smelling this — at Merz with a friend and fellow perfume enthusiast — I exclaimed out loud, “Wow! You have to smell this.” And indeed he did. Firstly, as someone who is generally disappointed by Vilhelm’s promises as a brand (the few hits for me are Basilico & Fellini, Room Service, and Darling Nikki), I wasn’t expecting to care about a new release. Secondly, given the profiles of much of their other work fall into easily predictable categories, I wasn’t expecting something so genuinely unique. Francis joins in on the Pistachio trend that has dominated the year between DS & Durga’s taking off, Yum Pistachio Gelato’s debut, and a thousand dupes attempting to capitalize off both these perfumes’ success — but where they provide a neatly consumable dessert, Francis sets your plate ablaze. Predominantly a plasticky-gourmand oud, saffron, cypriol, and a genius dose of heady aldehydes precede resinous and sweet, almost vanillic oud. Over the last year, another perfumer friend of mine gave me a bag of actual oud wood, and this is perhaps the closest smell I have found to how my purse smells after toting it around all day: smoky, sweet, and pungent.
I will spare extended musings on this scent already contained within my writeup of Clue Perfumery’s debut, but it is safe to say that with only a month and a half left in 2023, Clue managed to make my year-end list. Candlestick is smoky, fruity, and highly evocative — a potent picture of a child’s first communion. Complete with notes of cherry wine, extinguished candles, and incense, this is a who’s-who list of most of the things I like about perfume, and sure to be a mainstay on my daily roster in the new year.
Another extremely last-minute addition, but one that already has neared the top of my ranking: off-kilter indie mainstays January Scent Project have managed to concoct a serene mad-scientist floral fusion of multiple different types of oud, and the results are truly arresting. Chéngmén (trans. “city gate”) is perfumer John Biebel’s effort to transliterate the cultural fusion of smells from a Chinese apothecary he experienced while living in New York’s Chinatown. Released as part of January Scent Project’s yearly limited-edition sequence, Chéngmén is a nascent masterpiece of the floral-oud genre that manages to communicate perhaps one of the most inaccessible and esoteric types of perfumery in an extremely approachable manner. Calling to mind the compositions of fellow self-taught perfumer Prin Lomros’ label Prissana, the principal three accords in Chéngmén are the already multilayered oud, a balmy and heady red champaca flower accord, and a unique orris-ambergris-olive fusion that adds a fatty, buttery dimension to the mass of wood and flowers. What appears first, among throne-bearers of waxy aldehydes and miscellaneous fruit brought to market, is the champaca. A product of large evergreen magnolia trees bearing deep orange and yellow blooms, champaca releases a euphoric, tea-like floral scent across the Indomalayan region of Asia. Here, it provides an accessible and gorgeous anchor to the general composition, sweetening otherwise bitter and dry notes and boosting the overall powdery and herbal character of the perfume. Its medicinal properties are brought about by assorted botanical players: olive absolute, costus root, spikenard, orris, pepper, flouve absolute, and coleus root. The cumulative effect here is depth and dimension, like sticking your head into a produce bin at your local pan-Asian grocery store.
It is only into the drydown that these many forces yield to their conclusion: I found myself so overwhelmed with sweet flowers that I had, until this moment, forgotten this was first and foremost an oud. Biebel sources its Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese varieties to make this scent. I have recently, thanks to the well-timed gift of another perfume-obsessive friend, taken to burning actual oud in my home. I have since learned to appreciate the vanillic, hay-like, spiced undertones of this precious wood. I get the sense one is not supposed to be able to distinguish between specific sourcing here — but rather enjoy the cumulative cultural fusion already at the heart of this perfume’s purpose. What oud I do smell, however, is both dry and smooth in texture. This is a far cry from the pungent, jagged Japanese oud in Di Ser’s Jinko, for example. On skin, it wears low and long, with sultry associations to my nose of rum, civet, and unripe fruit. In all, Chéngmén nearly heads my list of the year’s best creations — and is sure to please both cultured oud aficionados and fragrance neophytes looking to dip their toes into the more nuanced areas of perfumery.
While, generally, I make it a point to never speak down to brands that are actively trying their best to make artful perfume, at the end of this piece I feel it worth noting a few releases I was anticipating that let me down. This is not to say I hate these perfume brands, but that these specific releases just happened to not be for me. With disclaimers out of the way, let’s really bring out the fangs.
I tried so fucking hard to like this one. I smelled it in multiple different states, in multiple different seasons, with multiple different explanations by overly enthusiastic salespersons who claim this smells exaaaactly like outrageous gay sex in a New York club bathroom, and each time I couldn’t bring myself to think anything of it other than this: it does what Diptyque’s already fairly mediocre Eau Papier did, but even worse. I get it, Nasomatto does things a little differently. I am often, in fact, blown away by their ingenuity. I consider Fantomas one of the best perfumes of 2020. China White was gorgeous, and shouldn’t have been discontinued. That said, I was looking forward to provocation, here, and was severely let down. Nasomatto purposefully did not release the notes of this perfume, and I genuinely wonder if this choice was made out of embarrassment. It’s so obviously just sesame, vanilla, leather, and a little bit of polycyclic Galaxolide musk. I’m sorry, but if I can guess the entire chemical makeup of your perfume without even looking at a notes sheet, and you’re branding your perfume as mysterious and intimate, you’ve clearly done something wrong. Nice try Alessandro Gualtieri, but back to the drawing board next time.
Maybe this was my fault, but I had high hopes for this one. I love the smell of myrrh: its lemony astringency, its balsamic undertones, its fizzy sweetness, its smoky profile. Since this was going to be the Shanghai city exclusive, I thought that it would potentially capture one of these myrrhian aspects in a delicate voice befitting the quiet performance demanded by East Asian markets. I was clearly wrong. This smells exactly like Anne Flipo, Dominique Ropion, and Fanny Bal’s noxious bubblegum tuberose reformulation of L’interdit, and you can buy that perfume for $87 at Ulta. Le Labo is currently charging $515 for 100ml of the exact same thing — with a bit of licorice added and worse performance. I’m sorry, I have worn my free sample and sometimes enjoyed it, but if you genuinely feel it wise to spend your own money on this perfume, you deserve the credit card debt.
I don’t even want to waste too many of my words on this one. This perfume is where tasteful vanilla fragrances go to die. I hope the middle-aged male sales executive who pitched a perfume basically called “problematic vanilla realness” got to feel ridiculous for a few seconds in front of a room of soulless corporate Yaas Queen capital KW-eer Capitalists content to call a candle “polyamberous” and sell it at Sephora — lord knows it's what he deserves. 🌀