This installment in my Iris Quest (see Part I here) is loosely based around the type of iris fragrances that will eat you for breakfast or at least force your nose down into carroty roots like a stern school mistress trying to train a puppy not to poop on the floor.
Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens
This is not perfume.
It is either art or a form of water boarding, but it’s not a perfume.
Iris Silver Mist teeters on a tightrope between aching beauty and ugly brutality for much of its duration. The first blast out of the gate is of the purest iris root note I have ever smelled – it an exhalation of pure luxury.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the buttery iris root note is whipped away and replaced with a wall of poisonous aromas that lunges for your throat and just keeps coming.
I can almost taste the smell on the back of my tongue – mud, earth, metal, roots, dry ice pumped from a machine at a festival. The mix of aromas is unsettling and quite brutal, a cold stew of raw potatoes soaking in ice cold water, rotting carrot tops, and something that recalls the acrid fug of alcohol fumes that comes off a hot Poitín still.
There is also the high-toned acid sting of fresh urine about it – like that of a baby’s nappy but devoid of any of the warm, sweet-sour honey and hay overtones that makes baby pee such a friendly smell. The urine aroma here is cold and denatured, ureic acid grown in a sterile lab. This is not of human origin.
This striking stink is, of course, iris – pure iris rhizomes pushed to the limit by Maurice Roucel, who, under the urging of Serge Lutens to make it more, more, MORE iris, dumped a little-used iris nitrile called Irival into the mix. Iris fragrances are usually icy, polite, and suggestive or either lipstick or the lining of an Hermes purse.
Iris Silver Mist is the bared teeth of a dog. It snarls.
It’s not at all nice to wear, at least not in the first hour, but it stirs my soul in a way that more pleasant, wearable perfumes do not. The drydown is a soft iris suede with dabs of creamy woods and a soft breath of spice. Not distinctive at all, and actually kind of weak, but we still have the memory of that opening to drop our jaw to the ground.
Iris Silver Mist makes me think of uncomfortable scenarios – teenagers facing the wall at the end of the Blair Witch Project, the tops of those dark pine trees swaying in the wind in Twin Peaks every time Coop entered the Red Room in the Black Lodge, the guy in nothing but y-fronts and a WW2 gas mask striding across a corn field at the end of episode 3 of True Detective…..
Think of basically anything that has ever chilled your soul, and that’s Iris Silver Mist.
It is a work of art. Art in a gimp mask, yes – but still, art.
Bas de Soie by Serge Lutens
Bas de Soie is a very pleasant surprise. I think I’ve been putting off smelling it because I am not terribly fond of hyacinth as a note in perfumes, tending as it does to contribute a pale green, chalky texture to everything it touches. Well, at least that’s what I think what happened with Chamade and Nahema.
But the iris in this is of the soft, powdery sort you find in Guerlain face powders, and tames the sharp vegetal edges of the hyacinth in a most charming way. There is still that slightly gippy texture to it that recalls hairspray or white shirts with far too much starch sprayed onto them, but this loosens up quite a bit as the day goes on, the scent gaining a silky, powdery sweetness that I wouldn’t have guessed at early on.
The whole thing comes off as a lightly soapy, green iris perfume that just begs to be worn when you’re wishing spring forward a bit. A big green-yellow powder puff of a scent. Along the same general lines as Chamade, L’Heure Exquise, and Le Temps d’Une Fete, I think it would appeal to people looking for a softer, more floral rendition of iris – something with a bit of botanical warmth in its bones. Impossible to wear this perfume and not think that spring has sprung.
Iris Cendre by Naomi Goodsir
Yet another iris that wants to have me for breakfast. Iris Cendre opens on a friendly citrus note that flitters off almost immediately before pulling back the curtain to reveal an orris butter accord that is almost as pure as in Iris Silver Mist. Pungent and waxy, there is something thrilling in the opacity of the iris here, and one almost feels pressed to the wall with it. Basted in an iris paste, so to speak.
The dense forcefulness of the note is emphasized by an almost unpleasantly smoky, sour cedar wood, creating an overall effect of a steel fist inside a cast-iron glove. It is not a soft opening – it is…… unforgiving. It is the Pale Rider on his horse, throwing all sorts of shapes. Why does iris cut me so deep? What did I ever do to it?
I don’t dispute the quality (or the amount) of good orris butter or iris in this fragrance. Whether you enjoy it will depend, I suspect, on how evilly rooty you like your irises. If you love Iris Silver Mist or 28 La Pausa, then you will love Iris Cendre.
But for me, the best parts of Iris Cendre are the odd little touches here and there that remind me of non-perfumey materials such as that waxy-lanolin slip to the iris in the opening notes, the steel wool fuzziness of the cedar (even though I don’t particularly enjoy the smell of it), and the rubbery, weirdly smooth-to-the-touch texture I associate with silly putty and freshly-poured latex paint.
There is also some tobacco and leather in the basenotes, but honestly, I don’t experience them as dramatically as other people seem to. To my nose, the tobacco is more of a subtle whiff of cigarette rolling papers that have just been emptied of their tobacco than the leaf itself, and in that respect, it reminds me of the also almost non-existent “smoky tobacco” that is reputed to be in Mona di Orio’s Violette Fumee. It also calls to mind the unlit, slightly ashy tobacco note from Jasmin et Cigarette, which is a fragrance I’ve come to like more and more over the years.
I suppose I should be commending the house of Naomi Goodsir for their restraint in not overloading the fragrance with smoke notes like they did in Bois d’Ascese. But a touch more smoke would have been welcome here – not only can this butch iris more than stand its own ground against it but the second half of the perfume really needs the supporting ballast. After the blazing iris beginning, Iris Cendre collapses into a faint whisper of a fragrance.
28 La Pausa by Chanel
I absolutely love 28 La Pausa. It features an iris note that’s every bit as pure as the one in Iris Silver Mist, but nowhere near as cloak-and-daggery. 28 La Pausa is like a fresh breeze off a line of linens on a summer’s day.
Bolstered on top by a touch of green citrus and below with a dab of creamy, peppery woods, iris is really the star of the show here. There is something to be said for just letting a fantastic raw material shine, and this is the approach Chanel has chosen here. Although the iris is sheer and ethereal, there is a slightly buttery, round tone to it that minimizes any attending severity.
I love 28 La Pausa for its purity and its gentleness, but I curse it for its longevity. It lasts all of two-three hours on my skin. For this reason, and this reason alone, 28 La Pausa is a perfume that I mentally rank alongside the great Apres L’Ondee. Do I really want to spend that type of money to wring out a pitiful two hours of scent, no matter how beautiful and emotionally affecting that scent might be?
On some days, my answer is a resounding yes. On other days, I am more sensible. My wallet is safe. Mind you, that moment of (uncommon) financial wisdom is like 28 La Pausa – strictly temporary in nature.