My bottle of John Varvatos Classic met me on a cusp. I was looking for a replacement bottle for Donna Karan Fuel for men and I realised that it had been discontinued. At the time I had no particular interest in perfume. I was happy with one bottle at a time and when I went through it I carefully looked for something new to take its place. Sometimes a second bottle sneaked into my rotation but that was as far as I got. For the first time I felt that I had to have a refill but then my luck betrayed me. Fuel was discontinued and it was then that I realised that perfumes actually fall off production at some point. Up to that point it had never occurred to me that scents don’t live forever. So I started looking for something that would remind me of it. The only thing that came near to my nose was John Varvatos Classic. When I say near, I mean in the same town, not next doors, but that was quite acceptable at the time. It was a fruity suede with an antiquated vibe, it missed on the vinyl note and overcompensated with sweetness, but still it was a remarkable scent for its time. I have been following John Varvatos releases ever since and they are more often hits than misses.
The 2013 Platinum Edition is reportedly a re-working of the 2010 John Varvatos 10th Anniversary Special Edition limited release. Their almost identical bottles also suggest this. I can imagine the house managers releasing this as a limited edition and then realising how stupid that was. Because Platinum has the makings of a classic. No concessions were made to what was widely popular at the time. The opening of Platinum is one of the clearest examples of what labdanum smells like. Dirty, resinous, sweet and sour at the same time. The resinous aspect is enhanced with mytrle in an accord that levitates between oriental and ambery. There is no vanilla however to allow a full landing on these slopes. Instead sandalwood and benzoin start taking over the lead giving this a decidedly old-school, powdery presence. The sour, dirty streak of labdanum sullies the softness of the base just enough to keep simple things interesting. Platinum is the most unexpected Varvatos. Not only does it lack the house’s plummy-jammy trademark note, but it dares to go full retro. Fifties retro! Back when men were not to actually supposed to wear perfume so the few scents that were marketed to them were simple, solid constructions based on sandalwood, without operatic explosions of creativity. Now take this idea and put it in the context of designer perfumes of the 10’s… Today Platinum Editions smells eccentrically oblivious of trends in the masculine fragrance segment. Or is it aiming in a very calculated way to to educate mass audiences on the quirkiness of niche perfumery? In all honesty, its entire progression may appall most men shopping at Sephora but it will feel very familiar to those who usually buy their scents in exclusive markets.
Dark Rebel, released in 2015, follows the main fruity-leather direction of the house in a contemporary way. And by that I mean it is sweeter and boosier and almost misses the high end of the low bracket of designer scents. It opens with rum and jammy plum but then the note that saves the day appears. It is the smell of black, shiny leather that lifts Dark Rebel out of mediocrity. And more importantly it is a very specific leather note that I have also smelled in Donna Karan Signature scent which was a stunning combination of etherial, feather-light florals and ominous black leather. The surprise came in the interaction of those elements: instead of leather weighing down on the flowers and resulting in a heavy, dark fragrance, the flowers created a helium filled leather balloon that floats with subliminal transparency. Putting sweetness aside, Dark Rebel possesses the exact same black leather note, shiny and light and eerily transparent. So in a strange way the circle that started with Fuel for men and led me to John Varvatos closes with Dark Rebel and returns me to the one designer house that treated perfumery with the highest respect and creativity, Donna Karan. The inaugural releases of Donna Karan (you do realise that DKNY has nothing to do with Donna Karan, the same way YSL has nothing to do with Yves Saint Laurent?) are legendary and with very good reason. When niche perfumery was at its infancy, the creative directors of Donna Karan captured the pulse of the changing face of perfume, decades before investors accepted the fact that people appreciate individuality. Instead of buying out “niche”, Donna Karan embraced and used what niche would become, releasing scents that were groundbreaking, inimitable and still coveted by perfume lovers. Rodrigo Flores-Roux, the author of all John Varvatos fragrances, has also created some of the most significant latter Donna Karan releases like Black Cashmere and Gold, so I cannot help but wonder whether he could have been involved in the creation of the unsigned Donna Karan Signature and Fuel and whether the similarities that I smell between Donna Karan and John Varvatos fragrances are only subjective or they have a sound historic basis. One way or the other, John Varvatos remains one of the few designer labels that develops a very specific concept over time, producing interesting and relatively intelligent fragrances. So even if the hype is not huge around them, do give them try next time you are at Sephora. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something you like and your wallet will also be happy.