I grew up in a rural village complete with all you would expect from this pastoral idyll; tousled hedgerows, dense cool woods, a riverbank, warm baked hay during the baling season, wild flowers thriving in meadows and my parent’s own fragrant garden. I also remember of course the abundant cow pats, the stench of our neighbour’s vile chrysanthemum filled industrial greenhouse and my friend’s terrifying turkey cabin so it wasn’t entirely beautiful. I do think however, that this mass of supersized smells probably initiated my curiosity with scent.
Perhaps my favourite scented memory is the beguiling but slightly lewd smell of the pretty white flowers of hawthorn hedges. They were at once startlingly rich, sweet and opulent but also tended to make me check my trainers (or more frequently, rollerboots) for traces of the numerous animal effluences that graced the country lanes.
The white floral is my least favourite genre. I have tried hard to love classics such as Robert Piguet’s Fracas or La Chasse aux Papillons by L Artisan Parfumeur but a proliferation of Tuberose and Jasmine brings about an extraordinarily queasy response. I appreciate the importance of these notes and indeed the orange blossom, in particular, the manner in which they play a crucial supporting role in so many pleasing fragrances. However, when they play a leading role, my nose withers in distaste at the indolic fetidity.
For me, I need an alternative take on the white flower, one which either surprises me with a quirky note combination or seduces me with the offer of a true replication of nature.
One perfume that replicates the white flower in nature is Trish McEvoy’s Gardenia Musk No 4. This is about as ‘putrid voluptuousness’ as it gets and is perhaps the sexiest fragrance in my collection. By ‘sexy’, I mean ‘come hither’ in the way that hawthorn or honeysuckle smells when warmed by the sun. With their pallid ghostly petals playing second fiddle to the other brightly coloured blooms in the garden, they need to release an almighty fertile stench to attract the bees.
I don’t recall the aroma of a gardenia flower, nor have I ever sniffed an isolated synthetic molecule that replicates it but my sense of ‘gardenia’ within perfumery is that of a lactonic floral, a slightly honeyed milky sweetness with absolutely no sharp edges. In that way it is to flowers what sandalwood is to wood. That’s exactly what you get with Gardenia Musk – a creamy, musky, rounded scent with a slight suggestion of honey and the warmth of a teeny bit of wood. I smell a highly realistic and decadent note of honeysuckle at night, captivating, as I’ve yet to smell another honeysuckle fragrance that does not smell of pound shop shampoo.
In contrast to an aldehyde laced floral, it feels like it contains no top notes and certainly no screechy aspects, as in numerous harsh floral compositions. I think the ‘sexy’ aspect is amplified by the fact that it’s almost drowsy. With no vivacious top notes to make it sparkle it is literally pleading to go to bed.
It’s white floral opposite is Miller Harris’s magnificent La Pluie, translating as ‘the rain’. Miller Harris describe the heart of this fragrance as ‘wet white flowers’, hence it’s name. The ‘wetness’ is increased by an abundance of vetiver, adding a grassy tropical forest vibe.
I wore my sample several times before I could write about it. Why? Because it’s so multi-faceted, as complex and surprising as Gardenia Musk is simplistic. It is most definitely gender neutral and I imagine it would appeal to others who also find white florals generally sickly.
The most curious aspect of this fume is that it seems to wear ‘backwards’. Vanilla bourbon and vetiver bourbon appear at the top of the composition instead of at the drydown where you would expect them to nestle. The vanilla is ‘pure’ vanilla in that is lacks sugary connotations, hoorah for Miller Harris! Instead, it reminds me a little of Shalimar in that there is a very adult smoky and leathery sensation to the vanilla/vetiver combination. Bergamot and tangerine seep in to add a little citrusy sparkle, again with a distinct nod to Shalimar EDT/EDC formulations.
Soon into it’s wear the ‘wet white flower’ heart transforms the smoky beginning into an exotic island floral interpretation. Jasmine and ylang ylang combine in a fresh partnership, ‘lifting’ the experience. The heady quality of jasmine is tempered by the sharpness of ylang (think of ylang as having the same euphoric effect as citrus). Both of these notes play out with subtlety, contributing rather than dominating. I feel that Miller Harris has a link across it’s fumes in that a number share a herbal, aromatic and soapy theme. La Pluie has this in buckets, a relief for me as I adore the way that the camphorous lavender is used to offset what could otherwise be too floral, bringing a little herbal integrity (nature at it’s most authentic) to every stage of it’s wear.
My mission to discover more alternative takes on the genre is ongoing. Therefore I’d love to hear your comments or suggestions about others that might surprise me. Or indeed your opinions of the fumes featured in this article.
I am giving away a sample of Gardenia Musk No 4 to a commenter drawn at random. To enter, simply leave a comment below and I’ll draw a winner at the end of June. Sadly It’s only safe to post it within the UK due to our Royal Mail postal restrictions, however EU commenters are welcome to enter but be aware that your sample might be end up being worn by a customs official!