At least once a day I stand in front of my perfume cupboard and ponder what to wear. Should it be one of the small, fancy bottles of extrait? Maybe an Eau de Toilette that I have pushed to the back and forgotten? How “dressed” do I want to be? When I can’t make a decision quickly, more often than not I reach for Iris 39 by Le Labo.
I love the smell of iris but have trouble with some iris-dominated scents. Hermes Hiris, for instance, turns to dirty hair smell on me before long. Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist, which I love wildly, also betrays me about half the time I wear it. It turns to dirty hair, too. The Different Company Bois d’Iris is lovely while the “bois” — mostly cedar, I think — burns along, but soon the scent soon turns to candied violets on my skin and the fun is gone. Iris 39 has never soured or hair-greased or sweetened on me. It stays earthy, a rich chypre with ginger, lime, and cardamom. It’s easier to wear than an old cashmere cardigan.
I discovered Iris 39 when I was in New York almost a year ago. On my way out of Barney’s after a spritzing binge at the fragrance counter and the newly-opened Le Labo room, a makeup artist at the Shiseido counter stopped me. “What are you wearing?” he said. “You smell divine!” I was wearing everything from Frederic Malle Carnal Flower to Molinard Nirmala. He sniffed his way up and down my arms and said, “There! That’s it!” It was Iris 39.
Eddie Roschi, one of Le Labo’s founders, had helped me that day. He’d described Iris 39 as “elegant”, and the Le Labo website does, too. But I don’t really think of it as elegant, at least not in the traditional way. It doesn’t smell like I imagine a soignée Park Avenue lady to smell, but more like Jane Birkin, or even her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, might smell. It is earthy, spicy, womanly, and modern. It appreciates Louboutin pumps but wears old cowboy boots just as easily.
Frank Voelkl created Iris 39 in 2006. He also created Colette 3 As 4, an iris scent that is fresh and bracing where Iris 39 smells just dug from the garden. Most recently, he’s the nose behind Sarah Jessica Parker Covet. Le Labo’s website lists Iris 39’s notes as iris, lime, patchouli, rose, ylang ylang, musk, violet, ginger, cardamom, and civet. Of these notes, iris, lime, ginger, and cardamom dominate, and patchouli and musk ground the scent. Bo Jade, the Le Labo assistant who compounded the scent for my bottle, said that Iris 39 has more patchouli than Le Labo Patchouli 24, but I don’t find the patchouli intrusive at all. Of the 29 ingredients that aren’t listed, I definitely pick out the warm, close-to-the-skin buzz of oakmoss and a little bit of sandalwood.
I think Iris 39 has been given short shrift by reviewers of the Le Labo line-up. Everyone seems to want to talk about Le Labo’s Patchouli (which smells like smoke custard on me), or the Labdanum, or the hard-to-get Aldehyde and Tuberose scents. This is all well and fine, but don’t let it dissuade you from trying Iris 39. If you like the earthy originality of Iris Silver Mist but it turns funky on you or you don’t have a connection in Paris to score a bottle, Iris 39 might be just the ticket.
A 50 ml bottle of Le Labo Iris 39 Eau de Parfum is $125. For buying information, see the listing for Le Labo under Perfume Houses.