If the category of fruity chypres is an axis, then Guerlain’s Mitsouko is its nexus – the point of origin around which all the other fruity chypres circulate. The distance between Mitsouko and Bond No. 9’s Chinatown, Chypre Mousse by Oriza L. Legrand, and Amouage’s Jubilation 25 is very real, but at times the distance between them seems like nothing, and at others, like a very long way away. In other words, sometimes I can clearly detect the gravitational pull of Mitsouko in these other perfumes, and sometimes, the relationship seems vaguer.
Mitsouko: The One and Only Mitsouko
Mitsouko is by far the most fascinating, and at times frustrating, perfume in my collection. I have a complicated relationship with her. How I feel about Mitsouko depends very much on what she decides to show of herself to me on any given day. Some days, she is cold and reserved, and whatever glimpse of peaches I get is more like a pan of hard, unripe fruit being simmered in formaldehyde in a far off room than the ripe, juicy fruit of which others speak. Oh but when she decides to relent! There is nothing better than Mitsouko when she is in a good mood. Slowly, she will drop her standoffish reserve and part her musty curtains to reveal a bed of spiced peaches on a dark, mossy bed – this Mitsouko is playful and mysterious.
I am working on a theory that you can break Mitsouko a little, or at least try to bend her to your will by placing her in situations where she is forced to come out of her shell. I discovered this when I spritzed it on one day in Spring this year before going for a long, six hour walk through the city with my husband, young son, baby daughter and my mum. By the end of the day, Mitsouko had taken on this salty, outdoorsy, herbal aspect that merged with the faint sweat on my skin. It was if both Mitsouko and I had finally learned to stop pacing edgily around each other and just chill out a bit.
Part of my frustration is her unpredictability. I can never know which one of her Janus faces she will show me on any given day. I own Mitsouko in many different concentrations and vintages: the 2013 EDP, a 1970’s EDT, a 1960’s EDT (onion bottle), the modern pure perfume, and lastly, a 1970’s spray deodorant. Each one of them smells, and behaves, slightly different on my skin, and none of them are consistent in what they reveal to me of their character. For example, today, to write this article, I sprayed the 1970’s EDT – a version with real oakmoss listed on the back of the bottle – on the back of one arm. It is usually the friendliest version of them all, for me. But today, its opening was rather severe and unforgiving.
Two hours in, however, and I get a surprise! For the first time in my relationship with Mitsouko, she is giving me a glimpse of her spiced floral mid-section, the rose, ylang, and jasmine that when combined with the peach and moss, manage to smell like freshly proved bread dough. It’s delicious. I am not sure how long this little détente will last, so I am holding my breath, hoping not to alert her to my presence. If it is not clear by now, then I will say it openly: Mitsouko is not a perfume you own. She owns you. As for me, she’s grabbed me by the short and curlies, if not my heart strings, and doesn’t seem like she’s letting go anytime soon.
Jubilation 25: Arabian Mitsouko
Although Amouage’s Jubilation 25 is technically an oriental chypre, to me it contains the full whack of the fruity chypre DNA put forth by Mitsouko. Without using oak or tree moss at all, Amouage has still managed to dress this up as a traditional fruity, mossy chypre that smells as bracingly stern as its French predecessors. The opening is bitter and smoky, owing to the massive dose of lemon, tarragon, and lemony-astringent Frankincense, but it is also quite shockingly animalic, with its audacious use of cumin to approximate the salty sweat of human skin. I find the opening quite intense and it took me a while to warm up to it.
Despite the different notes for each, I feel that the bitter, smoky opening of Jubilation 25 matches that of Mitsouko in both tone and feel. I don’t really know anything about how perfumers construct their perfumes, but how Amouage managed to arrive at that happy meeting of minds with the great Mitsouko without actually using any of the materials used in Mitsouko is amazing to me.
The salty bitterness of the incense and herbs is carried on through to the heart of the fragrance, where a huge, jammy rose suddenly blooms. There is fruit here too, an almost overripe, over-full note that smells like peaches, grapey jasmine, and plums. But the fruit and floral notes are just an accent against the real backdrop of this fragrance, which is a thick wall of smoky, bitter resins, incense, herbs, and dry, dusty cumin. Compared to Mitsouko in the mid-section, Jubilation 25 feels infinitely richer, more oriental, and more golden. It also feels tougher, more masculine, and less approachable than Mitsouko. This surprises me. This is supposedly the female of the Jubilation species. But I think it is utterly unisex, if not leaning a bit masculine.
The drydown certainly supports my theory of masculinity in this perfume – characterized by leathery labdanum, more incense, and a heap of dry woods, it is now starkly different from the softer, greener oakmoss in Mitsouko. Imagine Mitsouko and Jubilation 25 starting off as two sister stars within kissing distance of each other, and then spinning out in two completely different directions in space. Mitsouko ends in the classic whisper of moss and spiced peach, a very French, austere but soft exhalation. Jubilation 25 starts off in the same arrondissement as Mitsouko but lands in an Arabian spice market, where dry and bitter barkhour chips are being smoked over a burner.
It is a little harsh, this overload of bitter spices and resins, but at the same time, it is interesting and beautiful. How I feel about Jubilation 25 in general, though, tends to depend on how Mitsouko is treating me at any given time. Right now, in the depths of winter, Mitsouko seems to be opening up a lot more for me, so my decant of Jubilation 25 extrait tends to lie there, largely ignored for now. But once Mitsouko’s capricious pendulum swings back the other way and hits me on the ass, I will surely turn to Jubilation 25 for my chypre fix. Jubilation 25 is at least an immutable experience for me.
Chinatown: Non-Chypre Mitsouko
Chinatown by Bond No. 9 is not really a fruity chypre; in fact, I am pretty sure it’s classified as a floral oriental. But I can only wear Chinatown without it turning my stomach if I think of it as a (very) distant relation of Mitsouko and other fruity chypres. I see it as being connected, tangentially, to Mitsouko via the peach-jasmine heart accord, highly spiced resins and balsams, and the smell of floor wax. Technically, Chinatown contains all the notes I most hate in perfumery – specifically, a very coconut-y tuberose, gardenia, peony, and a very pulpy, almost ‘canned fruit’ type of peach note. I find white florals difficult anyway, and Chinatown just pours lush white flowers on top of yet more white flowers, and then adds a can of Delmonte peach segments in their syrup, and it’s all so much that I almost have to look away before I gag.
But somewhere underneath this tidal wave of sickening sweetness, a nebulous backbone of chypre-ish elements begin to take place – a snuffed candle note, floor wax, and woody resins. Chinatown never feels like a chypre, though. It doesn’t have the requisite salinity of moss, the bergamot at the start stands absolutely no chance of stemming the tide of sickly white flowers, and the patchouli in the base is not present enough for it to register even as a poor man’s stand in for moss.
But, oddly enough, when I wear Chinatown (from a sample), I always wear a dab of Mitsouko on my other wrist, and the quiet but forceful presence of Mitsouko always helps me to pick out the slight connections in Chinatown. When I wear Chinatown like this, I experience more of the floor wax, incense, and spiced fruit in the fragrance, and this helps me to combat the nausea I have in dealing with the sickeningly sweet white floral aspects. In conclusion, Chinatown is not a chypre, but it is a fragrance that I can somewhat force to behave a bit like one by placing it in close proximity to Mitsouko. And this is how I make Chinatown work for me.
Chypre Mousse: Weird Mitsouko
Chypre Mousse is a weird and wonderful chypre by Oriza L. Legrand – not technically a fruity chypre (it’s a herbal chypre) but its distinct similarities with the real oakmoss drydown of vintage Mitsouko prompts me to place it here anyway. It is quite odd, and not a little inaccessible at first. What I mean by that is that you will be scratching your head throughout its development trying to figure out what exactly it is that you’re smelling. I’m still not 100% that I have the right vocabulary to describe it. What I will say is that this is more of a smell or an experience than a perfume in and of itself. And it is most certainly the type of thing you wear for your own pleasure, rather than expecting it to appeal to anyone else.
The opening is deeply aromatic, with mint, sage, and fennel taking a clear lead. I usually have difficulty with aromatic notes in perfumes, because they are usually so pungent that they draw your mind’s eye to nearby items in your bathroom or kitchen, thus distracting you from focusing on the other parts of the composition. Mint is usually the main culprit – it’s very difficult for me to smell it without thinking of toothpaste. Cloves and cinnamon remind me of red hots. You get the picture. But here, the aromatics are so well folded into each other than you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, and so the wanderings of your mental associations are sharply corralled back into the perfume itself. The overall effect is of this herbal/aromatic soup reminiscent of (but not exactly recalling) the smell of old-fashioned medicinal balms I remember always hanging around in our medicine cabinet growing up. It’s…..interesting. Not unpleasant, but not entirely pleasant either.
It’s what this dries down into that pleases and intrigues me. And luckily this one transitions quickly into the heart notes and dry down, from whence it puffs away smartly on your skin for bloody days, if you let it. The smell is all grey lichen and oakmoss, hot rocks baking in the sun, flint, minerals, and salt. It captures the bitter, ink feel of real oakmoss. There is also an underpinning of something earthy/decaying and fungal, which would be the mushrooms and humus, I guess. It’s very interesting to me, because it smells exactly like the very last gasps of vintage Mitsouko EDT on my skin – that mineral, grey, salt-lick feel of real oakmoss on skin that is lived-in and sweated-through (by the end of the day). That’s the part I most enjoy about Mitsouko, and here you get it for hours and hours rather than just at the end.
But actually, despite the mossiness and the “Chypre” in the name, the whole feel of this is completely opposite to the feel of traditional chypres. Traditional chypres are abstract, stuffed, baroque-scaled compositions where the hand of the perfumer is at its most detectable. They follow a strict formula of bergamot, labdanum, and an animalic oakmoss/musky base (with neo-chypres substituting patchouli or some other woody approximation of real oakmoss these days).
This one feels like a bunch of notes from the forest floor just got up and walked into the perfume. It feels utterly natural, sparse, and unmanned. Like you licked a hot rock in the forest clearing one day, for no good reason. It’s weird and wonderful. I am not so enamored of the opening, but this is thankfully short-lived, and I absolutely adore the protracted dry down. Anyone who is interested in chypres or oakmoss compositions should absolutely try this one, of course, but I would also recommend this to people who are on the lookout for perfumes that are both novel and beautiful.