There is a road that stretches exactly 674 kilometers from Rimini on the North-East coast of Italy up through the Alps to Zurich, in Switzerland. This journey, were you to make it by car, would take you seven hours to complete, and by the end of it, you would have taken in most of the independent and artistic perfume making that still exists in Europe today. We are talking here about small, mostly self-taught perfumers who, instead of designing according to briefs set by the big fragrance conglomerates, create perfumes that take big, bold leaps into the dark and are limited only by the outer boundaries of their imaginations.
This route of the big risk-takers starts at Rimini, where Dominique Dubrana (AKA AbdesSalaam Attar) fuses a Sufi mysticism with an old-school Italian focus on composition to create his ‘scents of the soul’ for La Via del Profumo, the only natural perfumes Luca Turin respected enough to review for the Guide (all three reviewed received four stars). The journey winds up in the chilly Swiss city of Zurich, from where independent perfumers Vero Kern and Andy Tauer launched masterpieces such as Onda and L’Air du Desert Marocain upon the world. But now there is a new stop on this route – in Brescia, a rather non-descript city in Northern Italy, where Bogue Profumo is located.
Bogue Profumo is the brainchild of one Antonio Gardoni, who, being a designer and architect by trade, clearly thinks about things in terms of space and time. Specifically, he thinks about how to manipulate them. His first perfume, Cologne Reloaded, released in 2013, was composed almost entirely of vintage materials from the 1940’s that Antonio had stumbled across in an old pharmaceutical laboratory. He made the cologne using a recipe glued to the old bottles. In effect, Cologne Reloaded, was a reconstruction of a classic cologne from seventy years ago, a kind of exercise in wishful thinking akin to incubating a fossilized dinosaur egg. It was (still is!) incredible, a kind of plush, herbal-bitters cologne bristling with the kind of good ideas that would put most of the modern-day Guerlains to shame. The only trouble is, once the original vintage raw materials run out, that’s that. Falling in love with it is a surefire recipe for heartbreak.
But falling in love with Maai, the latest release by Bogue Profumo, well, now that is something I can wholeheartedly endorse. Maai is an aldehydic, animalic floral musk built on tuberose, musks, and resins. Without using vintage materials, Antonio has managed to close the gap between the grand old perfumery traditions of Chanel circa 1940 and the modern schools of perfumery that exist in today’s scaredy cat, post-IFRA world. And as someone who loves the vintage Chanels and Guerlains, Maai is speaking my language.
But for all of that, what does Maai actually smell like? It smells……both wonderful and scary. I didn’t know that something could smell so clean and so dirty all at once. A sharp, soapy sheen of aldehydes bathes the whole thing in a bath of white light from top to bottom, and is clearly a reference to vintage Chanel aldehyde monsters like Chanel No. 22. But unlike Chanel No. 22, which keeps things in a high, happy-go-lucky register by adding sunny orange blossoms, Maai immediately counterpoints the clean aldehydes with a powerful undercurrent of dirty musk, civet, and (maybe?) castoreum.
But fear not, this is not the fecal type of dirtiness you get in Serge Lutens’ Muscs Khoublai Khan‘s opening or the sulphurous wall of funk you get in Masque’s Montecristo. To my (admittedly amateurish) nose, the kind of animalics we are talking about here is the high-pitched civet-y tone of old school wonders such as Jean Desprez’ Bal a Versailles, or even Molinard’s Habanita. There may even be some castoreum here, but if there is, there is not enough to provide the round sort of dirty-coziness you get in Muscs Khoublai Khan or L’Ombre Fauve, but rather, just a pinch to sand down the edges on that rather sharp civet. Actually, according to one online review I saw, all of these nuances might actually be down to just one ingredient, specifically hyraceum – the fossilized excrement of the rock hyrax, a sort of African badger. Hyraceum has a fermented smell that encompasses aspects of oudh, civet, castoreum, and tobacco. Whatever it is, it is quite deliciously dirty.
But for me, much of the dirtiness here comes from the interplay of musks and honey. There may also be a bit of unlisted ginger or vetiver, because I can smell a direct line between the first half of Maai and scents such as Onda (honey, vetiver, leather, ginger) by Vero Profumo, and Molinard’s Habanita (powder, honey, leather). Specifically, there is something in Maai’s opening salvo that recalls the clean-dirty bathroom disinfectant feel of these two scents. If you haven’t guessed by now, that’s the scary part of Maai for me. Despite repeated tries, neither Onda nor Habanita worked for me, as my nose persisted in short-circuiting to that unfortunate bathroom cleaner association.
Thankfully, Maai goes on to shed that initial harshness, revealing glimpses of a green-tinged tuberose in the background, and an absolutely beautiful resinous, mossy backbone. The tuberose here is not the fleshy, indolic flower of my nightmares a la Fracas by Robert Piguet, but rather a crisp, watery flower that is sensed rather than seen directly. In fact, the way the tuberose is treated here reminds me of the subtle way Bernard Chant set the rose in Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir against a shadowy backdrop of resins and moss so that it is only revealed in sideways shots, like flashes in your peripheral vision. I have noticed the same treatment of the rose in Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfums, the shape of which you can only just make out by squinting through the haze of leather and patchouli. La Perla, that classic drugstore cheapy, has a similarly honeyed, dirty musk thing going on, lending it the same air of suggestiveness that Maai has. Again, the chypres I have mentioned here all share the same kind of leathery, mossy, animalic drydown that I get in Maai.
But is there even moss in this, let alone the real deal oakmoss? I don’t know – the official notes don’t say. Although this not strictly speaking a chypre, there does seem to be a mossy feel to this, although it may just be those dirty musks fooling my nose. The resinous, woody feel is real enough, though, and provides a sort of memory link between the resinous floor wax feel of vintage Mitsouko and modern-day equivalents, which in my estimation, would be the beautiful Jubilation 25 by Amouage (on the luxury end of things) and Hindu Kush by La Via del Profumo (on the natural perfumery side). In the far drydown, there is a sort of cold, unburned incense smell as well, which serves to circle the wagons neatly back to the vintage Chanel No. 22 I mentioned at the beginning.
All in all, Maai is a fabulous achievement, and one whose very name perfectly captures the perfumer’s intentions. Wikipedia defines the word ‘Maai (間合い)’ as “interval“, which is specifically a „Japanese martial arts term referring to the space between two opponents in combat, or “engagement distance”. It is a complex concept, incorporating not just the distance between opponents, but also the time it will take to cross the distance, angle and rhythm of attack.“ In other words, Maai is a perfume that seeks to reconcile the space between two opposing forces in perfumery; the lingering memory of the grand old-fashioned nitro musk- and oakmoss-soaked perfumes of the past, and the present-day reality of modern perfume making. Maai succeeds in that it references a glorious past without being a mere reconstruction; it feels at once ancient and modern, and indeed does inhabit that interval space between the old and the new. I for one absolutely love it.