Desert Island Sniffs, Episode 4: Barbara Herman

Desert Island Sniffs
Desert Island Sniffs

Have you packed your sunglasses and swim trunks? Good, because we are taking a trip to our tropical island for another episode of Desert Island Sniffs. If you’re not familiar with this series, the concept is very simple – I invite important members of the perfume industry, such as brand owners, creative directors and perfumers, to be stranded on their very own desert island, along with 5 carefully curated perfumes of their choice. It may be a tricky job narrowing a life down to such a small number of perfumes, but I can assure you that it is an entirely worthwhile exercise!

The perfumes they choose should be those that have had a significant impact on their scented lives and map specific points in their journey of olfactory discovery. In addition to their 5 Desert Island Sniffs one is kind enough to allow them to take a luxury item (only one, mind) and a ‘perfume bible’ to keep them company. By the end of this series there is going to be some rather fabulously smelling desert islands out there!

My Castaway This Month is Barbara Herman
My Castaway This Month is Barbara Herman

My castaway today is Barbara Herman, the author of the blog Yesterday’s Perfume and the book Scent & Subversion, and the Founder/Creative Director of Eris Parfums. Barbara is a scent historian with not only a huge knowledge of the vintage world of perfume, but also a massive passion for the subject. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest authorities on all scented things that are vintage and she has recently stepped into the fragrance market herself with the launch of Eris Parfums, which currently consists of a carefully curated collection of three fragrances, all of which have been created by the wonderfully talented Antoine Lie (he of Sécrétions Magnifiques fame). So, without further ado, let’s meet our castaway!

TCPB: Hi Barbara! Firstly, please let me say what an honour it is here to have you on The Candy Perfume Boy’s desert island. I’ve been an avid follower of yours for many years and it’s very exciting to see you move into the world of perfume creation with Eris Parfums. You’ve been tasked with picking five fragrances to take away with you to your desert island – how did you find the challenge of picking these?

BH: It’s impossible for me to name 5 perfumes I prefer over others, honestly I just chose 5 I love, knowing it could easily be another 5. Diorella, Vent Vert, Lanvin’s vintage Rumeur, and a host of other perfumes are glaring at me from the corner of my perfume collection. Let’s just say I hope the day never comes when I have to choose…

Vintage Bandit by Robert Piguet
Vintage Bandit by Robert Piguet

TCPB: For your first scent, you’re not holding back with Robert Piguet’s Bandit (vintage). Tell me what you love about this fragrance.

Every time I smell Bandit, it blows me away. It’s feral, it’s bracing, yet it’s elegant. Bandit is boldness in a bottle. Galbanum is one of my favorite perfume notes, and combined with smooth leather flecked with tobacco (via its isobutyl quinolone overdose), it just broadcasts chic. I get the sense that perfumer Germaine Cellier’s personality and even biography are in the construction of this scent. We’re smelling her elbow her way onto a perfume scene without being invited, mashing up conventionally feminine and masculine accords into a non-gendered scent that is so modern. Nothing smells like this, not even almost 80 years later. What I first wrote about Bandit 8 years ago (?!) still stands: “This is not an office scent, and I’m not even sure it’s a date night scent, unless your date wants to be tied up and pistol-whipped.”

TCPB: I love your description. There is definitely an element of fetishism to Bandit that is hard to ignore. It’s all whips and chains, leather and domination. I notice that you opted for the vintage, what sort of age do you look for in your Bandit and how does it compare to the current formulation?

BH: Any Bandit is better than no Bandit, but the pre-80s are best because they’re more complex and sumptuous, the leathery, tobacco-ey chypre accords like a dark velvet backdrop against the jewel-like galbanum. The lovely bitter green quality is still there, but it feels minimalist instead of the maximalist perfume Germaine Cellier meant it to be.

Vintage Nº19 by Chanel
Vintage Nº19 by Chanel

TCPB: Your next scent is another vintage: Chanel’s Nº19 (a favourite of mine, also). Why is Nº19 special for you?

This masterpiece also has green vibe, but much more ethereal than Bandit. This one gave me reveries when I first started writing about perfume in 2008. I sat down in my kitchen and was transported to an enchanted wood, each aspect of the perfume a heightened and poetic aspect of something you might find among the sun-dappled leaves and fallen brush. I love the aura of magic, mystery and subdued elegance this one gives off. Something witchy this way comes…I just got a 100 ml 80’s-era bottle of the EDT, and a few sprays in the morning are enough to keep me in a scented dream. If this scent had a soundtrack, it would be something off of Brian Eno’s “Another Green World.” It’s the scent that inspired me to view some perfumes as “mute invisible cinemas.”

TCPB: There’s almost an element of strength to it too, which is in keeping with the power-dressing of its era. Tell me, both Bandit and Nº19 showcase galbanum, which is always a divisive ingredient, why do you think it has fallen out of fashion nowadays?

BH: I don’t know why perfumers aren’t using it more. Perhaps because consumers don’t smell it much, unless they’re familiar with vintage scents, they don’t know what they’re missing and don’t clamor for it. And it’s bitter, kind of hard and austere. Maybe few people want to smell like that, but prefer “sunnier” scents? I’ll stay in the shadows with my green scents, thanks!

Vintage Fracas by Robert Piguet
Vintage Fracas by Robert Piguet

TCPB: For your next Desert Island Sniff you’ve gone for something much sweeter, specifically Piguet’s Fracas. What attracts you to this big white floral?

This is vintage Fracas, by way of my first introduction to its accords, via the knock-off Madeleine Mono perfume Madeleine de Madeleine. I think my childhood piano teacher wore Madeleine de Madeleine. Combined with the remnants of menthol cigarette smoke emanating off of her polyester pantsuits with the memory of her slightly frightening mouth brightened with crimson lipstick, big florals (the kind I like) have always seemed a bit scary and exciting rather than demure and ladylike. Both Fracas and MdM are bodacious and warm and seem to get bigger on my skin as I wear them, with tuberose’s almost fruity and edible quality. I feel the same way about Poison by Christian Dior, which I wore when it was age-appropriate, by conventional standards. Go big or go home.

Angel by MUGLER
Angel by MUGLER

TCPB: Go big or go home, indeed! We now move from one giant perfume to another, with Angel (now we’re talking my language). Why does Angel make your Desert Island Sniffs list?

I just think this is an exciting perfume, bold and over-the-top and satisfying like a blockbuster movie. It’s crisp, it’s gourmand, it’s overdosed with patchouli. I remember being bowled over by it and getting extreme responses from people when I wore it. Super-sexy. The modern version has changed, but that original one was like an olfactory bomb. I loved the strange icy color and unusual bottle, too.

TCPB: Do you think we still have fragrances as bold and over the top launching today?

BH: There are still bold, over-the-top launches. Thank god. But I think any perfumer who is following his or her heart and nose and staying true to their creative impulse rather than caving to market research and test groups is creating a bold fragrance. A bold fragrance isn’t simply a loud one that knocks you over the head, it’s a perfume that attempts to make a statement.

Belle de Jour by Eris Parfums
Belle de Jour by Eris Parfums

TCPB: You’ve picked a number of very bold fragrances so far. You’re not going to find it hard to be located on that desert island, that’s for sure! Your next choice is something a bit quieter. Tell me why you’ve picked Belle de Jour by your very own Eris Parfums?

Although it might seem shamelessly self-promotional to bring one of my fragrances to this infernal island that is limiting me to only 5 fragrances for all of eternity, I’d nevertheless have to bring at least one Eris perfume to remind myself of the exhilarating process of working on a perfume with an artist like Antoine Lie. And of the three, this is my favorite. (I know you’re not supposed to have a favorite child.) Ironically, given my general tastes, it’s my favorite because it’s smoldering but quiet, and you have to pay attention to its subtle shifts. On my skin, anyway (and I think these smell wildly different on everyone), I smell such a lovely movement from the sharp soapiness of coriander to the voluptuous richness of jasmine and orange flower accented by clovey pimento, which adds a touch of heat to the scent’s reserved hauteur. It then dries down to a “your skin but better” veil of floral warmth, finally ending with a hint of incense. Belle de Jour has that momentary pastry-dough rich peachiness of Jacques Fath’s Iris Gris that is so addictive. A few people who love this one have told me they’ve never smelled a perfume like Belle de Jour before. I agree with them. It’s special.

TCPB: I think a bit of shameless self-promotion is always excusable! When creating Eris parfums, how did the relationship with Antoine Lie come about?

BH: I interviewed Antoine for my book, “Scent and Subversion.” He was in the “Scent Visionaries” chapter talking about how he constructed Sécrétions Magnifiques and what his thinking was for each decision. I thought he was brilliant, love his romantic, daring perfume style. I learned in the course of our conversation that he loved vintage perfume and animalics as well (and you’d know that from smelling a number of his scents), so after the book was published, I proposed our collaborating on a floral animalic. He said yes, and it turned into a collection — “La Belle et la Bête” or Beauty and the Beast.

TCPB: What was the process you followed when working together?

BH: I told him what notes I loved, what vintage and contemporary fragrances I enjoyed, and what effect I was going for for the scent. I wanted it to give the wearer that uneasy feeling of being in love, feeling caught off guard, that I had initially experienced when encountering animalic fragrances for the first time. So with those directives, he sent me accords, and we worked on mods back and forth, both in person (either in Paris, where he’s based, or New York City, where I’m based) or through the mail. I’d tell him what I liked and didn’t, what worked and what I’d like more of, and he translated it all and we finished when we thought they were ready.

TCPB: Will we see more Eris perfumes?

BH: Definitely. I’m launching a 4th in the fall (also Antoine’s) that will be a bridge between “La Belle et la Bête” and a completely different concept that will probably be out next summer. When I say “different concept,” I mean, it won’t be vintage-or animalic inspired. But it will be quirky and unconventionally beautiful, like the brand’s namesake, the trouble-making goddess Eris.

Luxury Item
Luxury Item

TCPB: Now, in addition to your five fragrances, you’re also allowed a ‘perfume bible’ to take away with you to keep you occupied. What would be your choice of reading material?

BH: The weird little book “Odoratus Sexualis: A Scientific and Literary Study of Sexual Scents and Erotic Perfumes” by Iwan Bloch, from 1933, reprinted in 2002. Chock-full perfume history, philosophical ramblings, scent quotes from literature, and cuckoo bananas theories about race, ethnicity, and gender. (Let’s just say some of his theories are “of their time.”) “Odoratus Sexualis” is nevertheless an amazingly quirky and passionate look at how scent and Eros as life force are intertwined. My copy is riddled with exclamation points, next to sentences like this one, in which female lovers of perfume are divided up into five “types”: “1. White Rose, Celtis, Chypre, Peau D’Espagne and Patchouli lovers. All have the same, heavy sweet, almost intoxicating odor. They are not pleasant to loving human beings; and are inclined to sentimentality, sloth of body and mind, sextravagance. They also have a tendency to obesity. 2. Musk lovers. These are brutal and undifferentiated persons.” Etc. Hahaha. “Sextravagance” — the name of the next Eris fragrance?

Well, I wouldn’t call “Odoratus Sexualis” my perfume bible! I was just told I could bring a perfume book. I chose this one because it’s endlessly thought-provoking and amusing. Written by a weird perfume philosopher who took his ideas very seriously, even if the reader can’t always.

TCPB: Trademark that name and slap it on a bottle pronto! That does sound like a wonderfully bonkers read. You’ll most definitely have something to make you smile on the desert island, that’s for sure. Finally, you’re also allowed to take one luxury item away with you too. What would be yours?

BH: I’m a fan of small luxuries. The first thing that came to mind was that even though I might be alone on this island, I’d want my breath to smell good, so I’d want to have a lifetime supply of Marvis’s Jasmine Mint toothpaste. There’s nothing like feeling as if you’re a decadent during the time of Marie Antoinette, spraying musk all over the damn walls like Napoleon’s Josephine and exhaling jasmine-breath. The only thing that would be missing would be a nightly toke off my ambergris-scented cigarette…

TCPB: I don’t think I’ve ever had such a glamorous luxury item selected before! Barbara, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you. I shall leave you on your island now with your five (rather glamorous) perfumes and bid you farewell. I wish you all the very best with Eris Parfums and I’m looking forward to posting my review of the first three fragrances in the collection tomorrow!

BH: Thank you for this opportunity to talk about Eris Parfums and my obsessions, Thomas! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the collection.


You can read more about Barbara’s work on Yesterday’s Perfume and Eris Parfums. Swing by tomorrow to catch my review of Ma Bête, Belle de Jour and Night Flower – the first three fragrances in the Eris Parfums collection.

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