Dries Van Noten by Editions de Parfums de Frederic Malle is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I’ve been through two samples and half a travel mini of it trying to figure out why it is not pushing any of my buttons when – on the face of it – it should have been a slam dunk for me. After all, I am a fan of many of the Editions de Parfums de Frederic Malle, I love sandalwood and creamy gourmands, and I happen to be a massive fan of the work of the designer Dries Van Noten. But I keep coming back to the same conclusion: Dries Van Noten just doesn’t smell as exceptional or as unusual as you might expect from a perfume that costs €190 a bottle.
In particular, there is an unappetizing, quasi-gourmand smell to this that is off-putting to me. Something in the combination of the musk, cashmeran, saffron, and woods brings to mind the oily but also floury smell of ground nuts mixed with spices used as a dry mix for making walnut crescents, a traditional cookie throughout the Balkans, Turkey, and Georgia. Ground walnuts are so popular where I live that most housewives will use them as a replacement for flour in their cakes. This almost savory, mealy smell pervades even the smallest of corner grocery stores. Personally, I find the smell as unexciting as the cookies themselves, which always seem to crumble into an insubstantial dust the moment you lips touch them. Much of Dries Van Noten smells like this to me, hence my lack of enthusiasm.
The vanilla and the woods in the base offer a pleasant creaminess, but to my nose, there is also a very synthetic-smelling surround system at work. The musky, fresh-paint smell I get must be cashmeran, which is not something I find unpleasant per se. But when it is coupled with a sugary cotton candy note (ethyl maltol), it all proves to be one synthetic too far for the delicate sandalwood.
And as a sandalwood lover, the sandalwood note here is a disappointment – it lacks all of the nuanced and varied tones I have grown accustomed to in fragrances such as Bois des Iles and Santal Majuscule. I am far from a Mysore sandalwood snob – I don’t mind if neither the Chanel nor the Lutens I just named contain a single drop of the original Mysore stuff. What I appreciate about those perfumes is that they use an array of notes to suggest the full range of the smell of real Mysore sandalwood – the sweet, the creamy, the slight lactic sourness, green aspects, and rosy notes – thereby making an artistic statement rather than just a grouping together of raw materials. Much has been made of the use of Mysore sandalwood in Dries Van Noten. But since it doesn’t shine in this composition, I wonder why they bothered.
But most of all, I am mystified as to why a designer as eccentric and as bold as Dries Van Noten has been honored by a perfume so essentially boring. I’d understand if his clothes were ‘beige’ or safe, but they are not. Dries van Noten is a daring and much-admired designer who combines ideas from art and architecture with his design approach.
I remember in particular his 2008 Spring/Summer collection, in which he used the colors and aesthetics of Francis Bacon paintings as a starting point for the clothes – all unhealthy flesh tones contrasted with jewel-like blues and greens. The clothes looked strange but also exciting and -gasp! Somebody call Anna Wintour! – wearable. When I fantasize about having the budget for designer clothes, I always think longingly of this particular collection. So, with all the signs of an urbane, world-traveled designer in front of them, why they decided to make his fragrance smell like raw cookie dough mix is a mystery to me.