It’s clear that we will soon find ourselves in the midst of another wave of popularity for the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, thanks to an impending Disney film whose trailer was viewed a record-breaking 127.6 million times in the first 24 hours after its release several days ago. But as we all know, the greatest perfumers have been playing beauty against beastliness for a long time.
In recent years, certain contemporary niche perfumes have come to be defined in the minds perfume fans by their overt and unashamed animalic personalities. Against the backdrop of mainstream candied gourmands, pink fruitchoulis, and turquoise aquatics, modern animalic perfumes have acquired an almost mythic status as fragrances designed to épater les bourgeois. On the perfume forums, lists for the most animalic perfumes usually include Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublai Khan (1998) by Christopher Sheldrake, Francis Kurkdjian’s Absolue Pour Le Soir (2010), Antonio Gardoni’s (Bogue Profumo) Maai (2014), and Les Liquides Imaginaires’ Peau de Bête (2016). Reading reviews for any of these perfumes can be very entertaining. While some perfumistas clearly adore these scents, others just seem to be enjoying the experience of being shocked and the opportunity to write the purple prose of a kind of perfume scatology…litanies of fetid armpits, soiled diapers, streams of piss and poo, and the never-to-be overlooked, ball sacks. I have to admit that these descriptions both excited and alarmed me. Could these niche animalic perfumes smell as godawful as some reviewers claim? Being an inquisitive type, I began to order samples of modern animalic perfumes to find out the truth for myself.
And guess what? The fearsome beasts of niche perfumery are actually very nice after all, and they are mostly very well-behaved in company. I encounter a very slight fecal quality in the opening of Muscs Koublai Khan, which swiftly becomes a furry and cuddly floral musk. The dense cloud of honey that wafts up from the skin when you apply Absolue Pour Le Soir has just a touch of that sharp bitterness, suggestive of urine, that real honey can possess. (It’s fascinating to eavesdrop on a beekeepers’ online forum where they are speculating about which plants can give honey this scent. Autumn olive, apparently.) Quite soon after application, Absolue Pour Le Soir become purely sweet, resinous amber. Meanwhile, Maai has an unambiguous urinous note, courtesy of hyraceum (a cruelty-free animalic material, hooray for that!), that is layered with the most wonderful bergamot, camphoraceous tuberose, indolic jasmine, and heady rose for a truly decadent effect. The most recent animalic perfume to attract some attention, Peau de Bête, smells like the skin of a cyborg, rather than a beast of flesh or fur, with a pungent and medicinal opening, in which the skatole suggests coal tar soap more than feces and the cypriol reading like an inky fluid or scorched plastic. The only time I felt my gorge rise a bit while sniffing a perfume was during the opening of Peau de Bête, but this unsettling feeling doesn’t last long, and the perfume soon dries down to aromatic woods and a potent vetiver.
Perhaps my indulgence in vintage perfumes has completely distorted my perception of animalic notes in perfumery, for I don’t find the contemporary animalic perfumes I’ve tried to be strange or challenging at all. In fact, for me, they are infinitely more wearable and beautiful than many mainstream scents that studiously avoid any note that might possibly offend delicate sensibilities. Great perfumes rely on the judicious contrast between the sweet and the bitter, the foul and the fragrant, so if you love your vintage beauties, you owe it to yourself to try the modern beasts.