Perfume Review: Balenciaga Michelle, Or, I Begin to Understand Loud Perfume

Today’s review: Michelle by Balenciaga. Created in 1979 and discontinued some time in the 90’s, so far as I can tell, this oomphy floral carries some of the weight of 80’s-era perfumery, when everything was BIG and LOUD. Remember Opium? Poison? Obsession? YSL Paris? Giorgio Beverly Hills? If you don’t, you probably weren’t born yet. (Although I admit that I never smelled Paris until a few months ago, or at least I don’t remember smelling it before. It must simply not have been popular where I live.)

This is, by and large, a Tuberose Fragrance – not exactly the straight-down-the-gullet tuberose overdose that Fracas does so gloriously, or the richly sweet Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia version, but the tuberose does dominate it, and it is rather effusive in the classic tuberose manner.

Here is where I confess a thing or three:
1) I love tuberose. I used to wear tiny dabs of the original Chloe; I never minded the clouds of Giorgio Beverly Hills that ballooned through the halls of my high school; I used to swoon with jealousy whenever a friend of mine, who wore Sand and Sable, walked by; I adored the original tuberose-and-spice Tatiana perfume; after years of scrimping on perfume and using one bottle at a time of drugstore fragrance, it was Bath and Body Works’ Velvet Tuberose that propelled me headlong into Perfume Love.

2) My mother despises tuberose. I bought a small bottle of Sand and Sable once, after a judicious spritz from the drugstore tester, and my mother made me take it back, claiming that I wasn’t old enough for it (I was 17) and that she didn’t want it in the house anyway. Mom – and by the way, we get along very well! – is queen of powdery florals. She wore No. 5 eau de cologne, Anais Anais, and Coty’s soap-and-baby-powdery L’Effleur.

3) I despise huge, resiny orientals like Opium and Tabu and Youth Dew. Gah. If I were ever to be tortured by SPECTRE or some other nefarious crime ring, there’d be no need for the Chinese water torture or sticking bamboo needles under my fingernails: put me in a small room with a person doused in Opium, and I’ll be begging for release within minutes. Just shoot me now, please! And since those huge, resiny orientals all seem to be Big, Loud Perfumes, with monster sillage, it follows that I hate loud perfumes. I honestly thought that Poison, although not resiny, was one of the worst things I have ever smelled.

It has always seemed crude and socially irresponsible to me that some people seem to bathe in their scent, radiating their favorite smell around them the way Pigpen, in the Peanuts comic strips, raised a cloud of dust everywhere he went. Sure, wear what you want – it’s a free country! – but I resent having someone else’s scent forcibly shoved up my nostrils. Particularly when that scent is as noxious to me as one of the Big, Loud Ones. And doesn’t it seem to happen that the people who are drawn to those SMELL ME! scents are usually the same ones who overapply? I mean, I’ve never smelled someone who seemed to have bathed in, say, Borsari Violetta di Parma, a scent so quiet on me that it utterly disappeared within five minutes.

(I apologize right now to you if you are one of those people who wear Youth Dew or Opium or Coco, or their ilk, in tiny amounts designed to keep the sillage within a two-foot radius of your person. There aren’t a large number of you delicate Poison-appliers.)

Opium is the reason I feel this way, obviously, and just as obviously, there’s a story: It is 1980. I am twelve years old, and I have been saving my piggy-bank money to go see the summer’s blockbuster movie, The Empire Strikes Back. I’ll be in the company of some friends, and Kelley’s mom will drop us off at the Tanglewood Mall Theater and then pick us up afterward. I’m so excited. I’ve only got enough cash for the movie, but Kelley and Beth get buttered popcorn and sodas. As we’re standing there choosing seats in the nearly-full theater, and Kelley’s offering me a sip of her Dr. Pepper out of the “spare straw,” we get a faint whiff of perfume. It disappears. We sit down; the theater is filling up rapidly. Just before the movie starts, an older woman with husband in tow sits down next to me, in the last unclaimed seats. She has bathed in Opium. It rolls off her in waves. My stomach turns over. I trade seats with Beth, but I can still smell Opium Lady, in nauseating detail. Halfway through the movie, I have a pounding headache and a roiling stomach; I have to spend most of the rest of the time sitting on the lobby carpet, breathing deeply and trying not to cry over missing the movie.

You see? Do you SEE why I hate loud perfume?

Sorry for shouting. Loud perfume gets me exercised… which brings me back to Michelle. Yes, my rant notwithstanding, this is actually a perfume review.

I bought a small bottle, for less than $7!!! on ebay, of vintage parfum spray recently. (Parfum spray! Drastically luxuriant!) I had liked both Rumba and Le Dix from the house of Balenciaga, and for seven bucks, I thought it would be worth trying Michelle. Then I read a review (see the bottom of this post) of Michelle that mentioned its “ginormous heart of tuberose and rose,” and I was hitting the “Bid now” button faster than you can say, “Ginormous tuberose.”

I wasn’t too worried about the “bug spray accord” Michelle is reputed to have in its top notes. I’ve tested enough vintage perfume by now to ignore the first five minutes, which frequently contains less-than-pleasant “bug-spray”-like notes, which I had assumed to be stale aldehydes. In any case, the aldehydes are gone quickly, and there is a hint of watery, tropical coconut-and-flowers that says “Hawaii” to me. And then we’re down into the heart of Michelle, which is a glorious tuberose-and-carnation party. There seem to be other florals swirling around the walls at this party – the rose is lovely, the ylang and orchid creamy – but the tuberose and carnation are doing the samba in the middle of the room, with the music turned up LOUD. I mean, LOUD. I applied the perfume about twenty minutes before getting into my minivan to drive the kids to school, and the whole vehicle smelled of it by the time I dropped them off, fifteen minutes after leaving home. I radiated tuberose for hours! If Michelle reminds me of any other perfume, it is Diane Von Furstenberg’s rich tuberose-and-spice Tatiana, which I wore in my late teens. However, Michelle seems more complex and has a lovely drydown of some depth, which Tatiana lacks. The base has an interesting twirl of moss, vanilla, and sandalwood, but compared to the three hours’ worth of tuberose, it is very quiet. The tuberose seems to persist through the drydown, trailing loveliness whenever I move.

And here is my revelation: People wear loud perfume because they love it, and they don’t care what anybody else thinks. (If you’re thinking, Well, DUH!, I wonder how many people you’ve smothered in your past.) I just did not give a flip that some people hate tuberose, because I was swooning in its voluptuous embrace, and it was beautiful. Sometimes you just have to make yourself happy. But I’ll play nice, and not wear Michelle to the theater.

Notes for Balenciaga Michelle (from Perfume Shrine):
Top: Aldehydes, gardenia, green notes, coconut, peach
Heart: Carnation, tuberose, iris, orchid, jasmine, ylang-ylang, rose
Base: Sandalwood, oakmoss, musk, benzoin, vanilla, vetiver

Helg at Perfume Shrine has a much more rational review of Michelle here: http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2009/09/balenciaga-michelle-fragrance-review.html. Thanks to her for pushing me into buying this unsniffed.

photos from flickr, some rights reserved
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Perfume Review: Parfums de Nicolai Vanille Tonka

I’m jumping into perfume reviews with a favorite: Vanille Tonka. I read the notes for this one on a perfume blog: lime, mandarin, cinnamon, carnation, vanilla, tonka bean, and frankincense – and immediately went looking for a sample. It’s rare that I guess correctly whether or not I’m going to like a fragrance, just considering the listed notes, but guess what? I was right. That doesn’t happen often enough in general, so just the fact that I was right (once!) is cause for celebration.

The other cause for celebration is that this thing makes me giddy. Every time I spray it, I get happy. It seems perfect for chilly weather. I haven’t worn it in warm weather yet, and I’m not sure I’m going to, but the happiness factor guarantees that I’ll at least try it once. It starts out with a burst of tangy lime, and a hit of cinnamon oil. Remember those cinnamon-oil toothpicks the boys used to bring to middle school and pass around, before school authorities figured out how dangerous each and every thing brought onto school grounds can be? Those toothpicks smelled great, and if you chewed on one, it burned your tongue and cleared your sinuses. The cinnamon in Vanille Tonka isn’t quite that strong, but it’s not very foody. Likewise, the vanilla is not your average sweet marshmallow/custard/ice cream vanilla; it’s smoky and restrained. The carnation is present, only vaguely floral, underneath the vanilla and tonka base, and the whole thing is covered in a veil of frankincense, with its dry, lime-y, smoky depth.

VT is not universally loved – March over at Perfume Posse said she’d rather stick a fork in her hand than ever smell it again, and Luca Turin, in Perfumes: The Guide, calls it dull next to Patricia de Nicolai’s first perfume, Number One. (I’ll comment that VT reminds me more of Sacrebleu than it does Number One, which has a vaguely chypre-ish groove.) But it does have its fans: Robin at Now Smell This, despite not being a vanilla fan, calls it “lovely,” and Victoria at Bois de Jasmin comments that it is “sophisticated” and “comforting.”

For me, though, Vanille Tonka is all about lime and vanilla, and I always get this mental picture: tipsy limes staggering around, dancing through the vanilla bean and cinnamon stick forest, laughing their heads off every time they bounce into a giant carnation. Sophisticated? Well, maybe next to a vanilla fragrance like Jessica Simpson’s Fancy. When I wear Vanille Tonka, it’s because I want a little fun.

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