Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.
I can never see the first changing colours in the hedgerows without Keats’ poem coming to mind. As I drove to work today through the English countryside, I saw a blush on a beech and a flame on a poplar, as the mists rose off the river Wye. The time has come to put away the coconut, tiare, white flowers and aquatic accords and get sheepish. OK, I mean chyprish, but allow me the pun.
The nip in the air makes me turn to a set of fragrances that have taken me a while to learn to love passionately, and are now some of my favourites. I’m still a fan of big, spicy, fleshy orientals with all their ostentatious sexuality – you will pry my vintage Opium and L’Air de Rien from my cold, dead hands – but the subtle delights of chypres are what I crave now.
Today I enjoyed my vintage Miss Dior (the proper stuff that is now called Originale), and even though I sprayed myself lavishly early this morning, my forearms still smell warmly rich and sensuous as a cat stretching. Tomorrow I will treat myself to some of my absolute favourite: Miss Balmain. This leather chypre was discontinued when the new IFRA regulations reduced the usage of oakmoss to almost nil. I fell in love with it just before it disappeared and managed to get myself a bottle, which I now ration.
You might have come across Rochas’ famous Femme, Cabochard by Gres, or Jolie Madame from Balmain, Aromatics Elixir from Clinique or Mitsouko by Guerlain – all are different flavours of chypres and all share the essential oakmoss that gives this group of fragrances its sensual skin-scent base that smells like a lover’s neck. If you find a vintage bottle in a fleamarket or online, you may well find that the top notes have ‘turned’ and have a hairspray-like acridness. That’s because the most volatile chemicals have oxidised and ‘gone off’, but the longer, more stable molecules in the heart and base may very well be fine. Give the fragrance plenty of time to bloom on your skin and you may find it captivates you.
In fact, that is my best advice for learning to love all chypres. The oakmoss in them gives them a slightly bitter, astringent, stiff and unapproachable initial impression. I actively disliked plum chypre Femme and peach chypre Mitsouko when I first smelled them, and thought Cabochard smelled like aftershave. They were too much of a contrast to the gourmands and orientals I was first drawn to when I became fascinated by fragrance. When I finally bit the bullet and let an armful of Miss Balmain rest all day, I fell in love.
What I thought was a prim, uptight tweed-and-pearls perfume did that movie-cliché thing of pulling the clip out of its tight chignon and shaking out a mane of hair to reveal the inner sensualist. Miss Balmain wears silk underwear for her own delight, and by the end of the day she smells exponentially more enticing than any vanilla-cupcake girliness. These fragrances are ones to explore and grow into just as much as Stravinsky and Atwood, and they are a personal pleasure, not a display for anyone else’s benefit. Which, of course, is incredibly sexy.