This month marks my 10-year anniversary as a writer for Now Smell This, and I've been thinking back to my original impulses for applying for this fantastic gig. I love to write. I love fragrance. I wanted a chance to share my impressions of the perfumes I was exploring, from classics to the newest independent releases. On that latter point: for me, the gold rush of niche perfumery has gone from a thrill to a frequent frustration.
Be warned: this week's review is a also bit of a rant. Ex Nihilo, a Parisian house founded in 2013 by Sylvie Loday, Olivier Royère and Benoît Verdier, has positioned itself as an "alternative" within the world of luxury perfumery, but I'm not too sure about that. I can't help feeling that this brand embodies many niche fragrance trends that bother me these days.
A (supposedly) edgy concept. Ex Nihilo seems fond of names that allude to drug use. That might have been a novel idea when Yves Saint Laurent launched Opium in 1977, but it's never really gone away: we've seen plenty of niche releases that flirt with illicit substances, from L'Artisan Fou d'Absinthe to Nasomatto China White (heroin) to By Kilian Smoke for the Soul (marijuana).
An instant plethora of fragrances. In stores, each Ex Nihilo fragrance is available in several pre-set variations. From what I can tell, it's like having "eau" and "noir" flankers waiting for you. Bonus: a choice of materials for the bottle's cap (buffalo horn, anyone?).
"Raw materials" of the "highest quality." Of course. Apparently no other kind of raw material exists at this point.
Status pricing. $325 for a 100 ml bottle.
So what, you say? So what if the promotional descriptions are a bit overwrought, or a brand wants to offer lots of options? Well, I wouldn't mind if the fragrances actually lived up to their promises. Here are my thoughts on three of them.
Fleur Narcotique is "an overdose of substantive ingredients for an explosion of subtle but affirmed scents" with notes of bergamot, lychee, peach, jasmine, peony, orange blossom, wood, moss and musk, developed by perfumer Quentin Bisch. When I took my first sniff of Fleur Narcotique, my mind instantly flashed back to the department stores of the early 1990s. I can't quite pin down that impression — is this fragrance reminding me of something specific from Estée Lauder (Tuscany?) or Lancôme, or just a general type from those years? In any case, Fleur Narcotique is a long-lasting fruity floral with a sour edge. It has plenty of orange blossom, and some syrupy fruit with a dusting of baby powder and white musk; it's cheerful, but not "narcotic," to my mind.
Sweet Morphine is "the embodiment of a self-assumed but ambivalent femininity, at once delicate yet lascivious. . .a subtle bouquet tenderly perverted by a very captivating carnal lightness," with notes of lilac, iris, wood and vanilla, developed by perfumer Nathalie Cetto. That list of notes sounds like something I'd love. So what happened here? Sweet Morphine starts off with an intriguing chilly note, something ozonic and piercing yet sweet, like frozen cherries. It doesn't last, though. There's a fleeting iris note that smells very synthetic, and then the rest of the fragrance is a sharp, peppery lilac that stings my nose.
Love Shot is "the assertion of a sophisticated and uninhibited Parisian femininity" (as opposed to Sweet Morphine's "self-assumed but ambivalent femininity") with notes of bergamot, pink berries, peony, jasmine, patchouli, raspberry, vetiver, leather, vanilla and musk, again developed by Nathalie Cetto. This is supposed to be a contemporary chypre, another popular idea these days. It's a woody-resiny composition with a gourmand edge, like a mix of berry-vanilla liqueur, cedar-chip potpourri and incense smoke. To me, it's the most interesting of the three (even though I'd never classify it as a chypre); all the same, I'd like it more as a candle.
As you can see, none of these three fragrances was a hit with me. Of course, my grumbling isn't going to make any difference: Ex Nihilo has quickly become a media darling, which brings me to a bit of a back story. Earlier this year, a writer for a glossy women's magazine contacted me looking for a "smart and perceptive" quote for an article in progress. I would have been happy to oblige, but it turned out that this writer was seeking praise for two specific perfume brands. Ex Nihilo was one of them.
I suggested other brands (ones I prefer!) that might fit the story's theme, but no — it was those two, or nothing. I just couldn't do it. And that's one reason you don't see me quoted anywhere in the mainstream press. Which reminds me of another reason I wanted to be part of NST: we have real freedom of speech here. Ten years later, I appreciate that fact more than ever.
Quick poll, as 2016 winds down: has any perfume really surprised you lately?