Apr 19, 2011, 06:12AM

The Ari Samsky Guide to Cologne

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A*Men, Thierry Mugler

Before he started hanging around with Lady Gaga and became a musclebound superfreak, Thierry Mugler put his name on a bunch of weird perfumes, the most notable of which is Angel. Mugler sells a bewildering variety of Angel perfumes for women, but I’m familiar with the men’s version, known in the U.S. as A*Men (pronounced, I assume, “A, gasp, men”). A*Men is a gourmand, which means a perfume that smells like food, although in this case it smells like something the replicants from Blade Runner would eat—synthetic dark chocolate coupled with cigarette tar and a pound of brown sugar. Mugler’s henchmen have smuggled some patchouli and mint into the scent too: the overall effect is futuristic, sexually ambiguous, and menacing in a cartoonish way, more Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg than Roy Batty.

Mugler’s team endowed A*Men with remarkable projection and “sillage” (French for wake, as in the wake of a boat, or a guy wearing way too much cologne). The scent lasts until you wash it off. MuglerCorp also releases a number of A*Men spin offs—they’re intended to celebrate manly vices in the salty, populist fashion associated with French couture houses. So far they’ve released Pure Coffee (almost impossible to find), Pure Malt (which smells faintly of whisky), and most recently Pure Havane, which adds some cigar tobacco notes to A*Men’s already complex stew.

The brains at Mugler attempted to exploit A*Men’s success with B*Men, a spinoff that employed a dopey super hero sales narrative and smelled like a burlap bag of cedar chips soaking in a bucket of mescal. Cedar notes in cologne risk evoking pencil shavings and the attendant memories of emptying the sharpener in grade school. B*Men’s cedar is much too wet for this—it verges on the menacingly fruity cactus note of Givenchy’s Xeryus Rouge; both scents are too weird to be good. Mugler also produces Mugler Cologne, which is both weird and good. It’s a delightful acid-green unisex scent that smells like pickled ginger sitting on a steam iron.

A point of perfume history: A*Men (1996) follows the delightfully trashy Animale Animale (1994), which comes in a faux-marble bottle straight out of a Patrick Nagel painting, and smells pretty much like A*Men with about 10 percent more vanilla. Make sure to ask for Animale Animale by Animale; the same company also makes an undistinguished cologne called Animale by Animale; I am not making this up.

A*Men sold well while Animale Animale, which is much cheaper and at least as good, languishes in obscurity. As Ecclesiastes wrote, “The race goeth not to the swift.” Particularly non-swift is A*Men’s late-arriving imitator Lolita Lempicka au Masculin (2000). This comes in a bottle that looks like a performing arts complex designed by a jellyfish; the fragrance smells like melted licorice.

Dior Homme, Dior

If you’re like me you aren’t interested in buying a consumer product unless you see Jude Law whispering into a telephone about it with the gravity and seriousness of a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Tribunal. Dior has thoughtfully provided the viewing public with exactly that image in its ad campaign for Dior Homme, which smells like whoever put together the brief for Dior’s perfumers had just learned the definition of the word “metrosexual,” and was excited to share it. Dior Homme combines bitter chocolate and powdered iris and comes out with something that perfume critic Luca Turin described as “languid weirdness.” The fragrance comes in a very thick, clear, rectangular glass bottle that looks like an art deco desktop lighter.

Dior has also released a sport version, which lightens the whole thing up (and turns the sprayer red, evidently the color of sport). They’ve also released an “intense” version that emphasizes the chocolate. I find it easy to appreciate Dior Homme but hard to like it; it’s the perfume equivalent of a well-made knockoff van der Rohe Barcelona chair: beautiful, elegant, uncomfortable, faintly ersatz.

Knize Ten and Molinard Habanita

Knize Ten debuted in 1924, went out of print for years and has recently been re-released. Whoever is doing it now apparently hasn’t tampered much with the formula. Ten smells like the aftermath of a really good party in an expensive loft—spilled whiskey, cigarette smoke, leather, burnished wood, squashed lemons. There’s also a faintly repulsive base of castorteum, which honest to god comes from a scent gland found in beavers. The program opens with a kind of candied floral note (floral in the sense of both sweet blooms and bitter stems) but the nasty leather is always hovering in the background. This kind of tension is what drives the subtle genius of Showtime’s Californication, and it also makes for great perfume.

The only other surviving weird 1920s leather/smoke scent is Molinard’s Habanita, which joins the virtue of being cheap with the other virtue of smelling really good. Molinard currently markets Habanita for women, but it began its career as a men’s scent and is entirely suitable anyone who wants to smell like the inside of a taxi cab in a film noir set in Los Angeles. Habanita arrives at smoke and booze by combining sweet vanilla and astringent vetiver; it ends up with something like a really beautiful cigar resting in a jar of talcum powder. It took me a long while to like Habanita, while I liked Knize Ten immediately. Maybe this is because Ten is busy to the point of incoherence and Habanita is simple. Both would work equally well on men and women, and both smell nothing like the fragrances in your local mall.

Antaeus, Chanel

Remember that dude who Hercules had to wrestle, and the only way to win was to break his contact with the ground and then squish his head? That was Antaeus, who the scholar Robert Hollander describes as “a total loser.” Antaeus the cologne actually references the myth through dirty, planty notes and a heady dose of beeswax. The top of the scent is a sweetened, crisp pine, at least I think—this particular fragrance resists being broken into notes. The overall effect is both earthy and fresh, although I’ve found that it has a troubling tendency to go bad fast. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it smells like horse urine—it shares this quality with Chanel’s Egoïste, which is also very nice (Egoïste’s memorable ad campaign). Antaeus’ bottle, which looks like a giant black lipstick tube, is awesome.

Quorum, Antonio Puig

Quorum comes out of the early 80s, and it’s easy to see how it would have integrated smoothly into the excesses of the era. Quorum, unlike 80s fashion, has aged rather gracefully, and it’s also kept its 1980s price tag—you can get it for around $20 a bottle now. The great Paco Rabanne pour Homme and its swankier cousin Azzaro pour Homme paved the way for Quorum, which troubles its predecessors’ clean and sweet formulas. Quorum smells like a big, fresh, white bar of soap resting on a suede jacket, sprinkled with pine needles and lemon. There’s some nutty, oily wood in there too; it’s what I would imagine Harrison Ford’s groundskeeper would smell like.

Antonio Puig makes other cheap but good scents. Agua Brava eliminates the sweetness and leather from Quorum but keeps the pine, and Agua Lavanda is a delightfully simple lavender/musk cologne splash that goes for about $15 a liter. There’s even an aquatic spin-off of Quorum, Aqua Quorum, that exchanges Quorum’s sober brown bottle for a yellow and blue confection that looks like something you would present to the winner of the America’s Cup. It smells like one part Quorum, ten parts Davidoff Cool Water.

Live Jazz, Yves Saint Laurent

A fresh summer fragrance that I experience as basically straight cilantro. If you’ve been searching for a cilantro-based fragrance for your entire life then you need to think hard about your decisions.

Havana, Aramis, and Montana pour Homme

This is a very strange, almost acrid fragrance; Estee Lauder/Aramis re-released it a few years ago as part of its “Gentleman’s Collection,” which sounds like a 1950s euphemism for pornography. Havana opens with bitter lemon and rum, and these scents roil above a very distinctive, resinous tobacco-leaf base with just a tiny trace of sweet vanilla. The overall effect is extremely dry and spicy, perfect for watching the Jamie Fox/Colin Farrell version of Miami Vice while sipping a mojito and wearing a guyabera shirt and eating a big handful of black pepper, and also you’re sitting in a juniper bush. Pretty good, very distinctive and natural smelling.

A cheaper alternative is Claude Montana’s Montana pour Homme, which smells like Havana cut down to about a third of its usual potency. I have no idea who Claude Montana is but I know that he’s French. I like to imagine him as a swaggering old west cowboy with an extremely thick French accent—“’owdy, pardneur, ah ehm lookeehn for quelques types très louche, they ‘ahve stolen mah orse.” Havana comes in a plain bottle, while Montana pour Homme’s brown glass bottle resembles a tall, skinny butte. Montana comes in two version, red box and blue box; the red box is the one that smells like Havana, while the blue box contains a much-reviled reformulation.

Vie de Chateau Intense, Parfums de Nicolaï

Patricia de Nicolaï, a scion of the Guerlain family, produces an entire line of niche fragrances. Many of them are duds (the somnolent Cologne Sologne, for instance), some are masterpieces (the sublime New York), and at least one, Vie de Chateau, is memorably weird. Vie de Chateau Intense, whose name suggests foxhunting while wearing brightly-colored Spandex, is sort of a cross between Antaeus and Quorum; it takes bitter, green leafy notes and couples them with ritzy leather. It opens with a bright, sweet citrus with traces of anise, somewhere between a lemon cough drop and a Good ‘n’ Plenty. From there it gets drier, sweeter, and more floral without losing sight of the lemon.

The overall effect suggests the gun room in the country house from Match Point—something aristocratic but slightly dirty and neglected, spruced up with a bouquet of flowers and a spritz of Lemon Pledge. Vie de Chateau shares a syrupy density with de Nicolaï’s little-liked Nicolaï pour Homme, a much simpler scent that pairs icy lavender with VDC’s base; both make me think of cookies despite a total absence of cookie flavors. Vie de Chateau and Nicolaï  pour Homme are interesting and engaging, and both are slightly too strange to be wearable. Aramis’ readily available Devin, charmingly labeled as “country cologne,” sits about midway between these two scents.

The pantheon of weird colognes should also include Bulgari Black, which has the sweet, faintly vanillic rubber smell of an action figure, Comme des Garçons’s Odeur 73, an “anti-perfume” that smells like a warm computer with a vase of flowers sitting on it, and Andy Tauer’s expensive Lonestar Memories, which evokes a barbecue held in an abandoned Eastern Orthodox church. In the smoky vein Jacomo de Jacomo smells like a combination of a damp fireplace and a field of fragrant grass freshly burned down to stubble—ash, wet earth, hay. The overall effect is faintly sweet and much less Interview with the Vampire than the description makes it sound.

Jacomo also produces Jacomo de Jacomo Rouge, a rather less challenging scent that inserts a curiously perfect praline smell into a shameless copy of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle. Despite the fact that it’s a popular bestseller Le Mâle is weird enough to make this list: it’s a pale, diaphanous lavender of elfin sweetness and face-melting power and duration. Despite an ad campaign that features a ripped, shirtless, sleepy-eyed sailor and a bottle shaped like a male torso with a comically huge package Le Mâle has become indelibly associated with the kind of heterosexual guy who knows the circumference of his biceps and holds strong opinions on automotive ground effects.

État Libre D’Orange, a perfume house that would dearly like to be an enfant terrible or a bête noire, produces a cologne called Sécrétions Magnifiques which is supposed to smell like saliva, semen and sweat. Its logo is an ejaculating penis. The actual fragrance is floral, sweet, clean, almost pleasant, and sickeningly powerful and long-lasting; beneath the surface I doscovered a truly baleful spoiled milk note that made me gag. ELD’O also produces a celebrity perfume endorsed by Hollywood sensation Tilda Swinton. This collabo must have delighted their marketing directors, since nothing moves product like the star of the coal-barge related movie Young Adam.

I should also mention Salvador Dali pour Homme, a literally surrealist cologne that comes in a disturbing bottle topped with a huge pair of pursed lips. It smells like overheated circuit boards resting on a flower-bedecked grave. I don’t know who would want to wear it—maybe transhumanists or Neil Gaiman fans.


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