Ask me what I think of new fragrances these days, and prepare for a rant. “What happened to real perfume?” I’ll moan. “People used to appreciate smart fragrances. Perfume could be abstract and complex.” At that point I’ll drop my head and stare forlornly in the distance, trying my best to telegraph visions of forgotten Lanvins and Millots.
Thank goodness I'm so often wrong. For all the old beauties that have fallen out of production, gorgeous new perfumes are still being created. Le Labo Ylang 49 is real perfume.
Perfumer Frank Voelkl created Ylang 49. It has notes of ylang ylang, Pua Noa Noa,1 patchouli, oakmoss, sandalwood and benzoin. What Ylang 49 doesn’t smell like is an ylang ylang soliflore. The caramelized cold cream aroma of ylang ylang plays only a supporting role. What Ylang 49 does smell like is an honest-to-goodness floral chypre, replete with a furring of musty oakmoss, the better to throw the fragrance’s beauty into relief.
Ylang 49’s chypre structure is evident from the first sniff. Moss, dry sandalwood and the zing of bright citrus — lemon peel? — announce that if you’re looking for a fruity-sweet musk-patchouli number, you can go back to the mall. I wouldn’t be surprised if clean, restrained musk makes up some of Ylang 49’s 49 ingredients, too.
Ylang 49’s floral heart is dry and subtle. The fragrance floats on skin. You know how a gardenia can be big, green, succulent and tropical? Take all that away but a whiff of the fruit and marry it to the flower’s almost gaseous essence, and you’ve captured Ylang 49’s heart. No wet, messy, loud perfume here. Just a hint of the fruit of gardenia — but not enough to make Ylang 49 juicy — hovers with the shimmering, hot part of the flower.
The result is an abstract, elegant fragrance that wafts like chiffon. Ylang 49 lasts all day, with its biggest push in its first three hours, then a real but hard-to-pin-down presence from there. Ylang 49 melds with its wearer to create an aura rather than a definite odor. It’s the sort of perfume that leads you to realize, after spending a few hours with someone wearing it, that she sure smells nice.
One more thing: Ylang 49 shares DNA with another Voelkl fragrance, Le Labo Iris 39. Their chypre scaffolding smells a lot alike, especially in the first half hour of wear. (If this is a Voelkl signature, sign me up for more.) Ylang 49 is more lemony, dry and cloud-like than the ginger-earth-iris of Iris 39, but they’re definitely sisters.
Although Ylang 49 isn't an especially challenging perfume, a brand new perfumista might not take to it right away. It’s not overtly pretty or sexy or delicious. It’s not about flash and décolletage. If you’re moved to order a sample of Ylang 49 and on smelling it think, “It's all right but nothing to get excited about,” I urge you to put the sample away somewhere cool and dark and come back in another year. Keep smelling, keep paying attention. You may never love Ylang 49 — or you might! — but I bet you’ll at least respect it.
Le Labo Ylang 49 Eau de Parfum is $145 for 50 ml and $220 for 100ml. For information on where to buy it, see Le Labo under Perfume Houses.
1. Le Labo’s press releases says Pua Noa Noa is a Tahitian gardenia. A web search of Pua Noa Noa turns up a Polynesian song, but no gardenias. Searching for “Tahitian gardenia,” on the other hand, produces “tiaré flower.” Ylang 49 doesn’t smell overtly of tiaré to me, but I could be convinced.