Memoir Woman was designed as part of a pair of fragrances, as is common with Amouage, and the two fragrances were meant to explore the “timeless narrative of man and woman.” Released in 2010, the scent was composed by Daniel Maurel and Dorothée Piot, and categorized as a “spicy leather-animalic chypre.”
Topnotes: cardamom, mandarin orange, pink pepper, wormwood (absinthe). Heart notes: clove, incense, pepper, woody notes, jasmine, rose, white flowers. Basenotes: musk, French labdanum, oakmoss, styrax, leather.
A kind friend sent me some of this wonderful fragrance. Earlier, I’d read the words “animalic chypre” and raised my eyebrows, thinking, “Well, I can write this one off the test list.” Animalic chypre is so not my style. In fact, it still isn’t, and may never be – but I’ve come to understand that Memoir Woman is very difficult to classify. Like another morpher, Chamade, Memoir Woman smells very different from top to bottom. Unlike Chamade, which can be classified as a green floral with an oriental base, Memoir is tougher to pin down. You think it’s going one way, and then you hang a hairpin turn and find yourself somewhere completely different.
Upon first spritz, my nose crinkled up and I jerked my head back. Such a strange smell! So weird – and yet so oddly appealing. I sniffed more. I kept coming back to my wrist, tracking each facet in turn. “I can’t figure this out,” I said to myself. “It isn’t a chypre. It isn’t particularly animalic. I smell a little bit of leather, but it’s not A Leather Scent, either. Is it a floral? Not really. So what is it?”
I had no answers for weeks. I rechecked the notes, while smelling. Still no understanding reached me. I read Angela’s review at Now Smell This, trying to make her experience congruent with mine – but no luck. Memoir made less sense to me than ever. I read reviews at Basenotes and Makeup Alley and Fragrantica. I read Tarleisio’s evocative story-review at The Alembicated Genie, and loved the story, but still had absolutely no idea as to how this fragrance worked. “I should hate this thing,” I mused to myself. “All those aromatics. And incense and woods and chypre components… I just. Don’t. Get. It.” I read Marina’s review at Perfume-Smellin’ Things, too, to no avail. It’s so weird, I kept saying to myself. Just weird, fifty-’leven kinds of weird.
Then one morning I put on two spritzes (neck and wrist) and headed out to my local Wal-Mart, to buy lining fabric for a dress I planned to make for my daughter. The woman cutting the fabric complimented Memoir: “What on earth smells so good?” she exclaimed, looking around. “Oh, it’s you! It’s your perfume. That’s really wonderful, I love it.” I thanked her, took my lining fabric, and went to the grocery aisles to pick up eggs and milk and salad ingredients before checking out. The cashier, too, was effusive. “I just love your perfume,” she said, learning toward me with shining eyes. “What is it?” I told her the name: Memoir. “My husband would just love that on me. You know, it smells like perfume, but it isn’t loud. So beautiful.” I thanked her and left the store, surreptitiously sniffing my wrist.
I had an epiphany about how Memoir is put together, right there in the Wal-Mart parking lot, monument to America’s taste for cheap plastic stuff and clothing made in China, the refuge for every redneck in the county buying beer at two in the morning on weekends. I will never again thoughtlessly refer to “trailer trash tastes,” not after seeing how people clearly unused to upscale perfumery enjoyed it so much! I wore Memoir frequently over the following weeks, checking and rechecking how it morphed, enjoying it more each time, until I had worn it almost as often as I wore Mary Greenwell Plum, and it felt nearly as comfortable.
At first sniff, the fragrance is intensely green: a dark, inky green with an almost poisonously neon green curling through it like smoke, or like liquid food coloring dropped into water. The liqueur-like absinthe note is startling and vivid for a few moments, and then you begin to catch the peppery-spicy elements behind it as the Green Fairy flutters away. There is a soft, suedey leather bit apparent under that, as well as a hint of (I think) frankincense, and this phase lasts for about half an hour. It smells – oh, not like pine exactly, but it has a bracing, chilly winter air feeling about it and make you want to breathe in repeatedly, pulling the sharply aromatic scent into your lungs.
(Image is The Harem Dance, by Giulio Rosati. Notice how there are no lascivious guys in the room, just women hanging out. — Okay, there IS that lute-playing dude in the back, but he’s not there to leer, he’s there to provide soundtrack.)
Gradually this bracing, cold-air aspect is subsumed by a warm, rich, floral section dominated by white flowers. The effect is that you’ve come in from the cold into a colorful, plushly-decorated room peopled with odalisques in diaphanous costume, idly brushing each other’s hair or smoothing fragrant oils into their skin, chatting pleasantly and affectionately to each other in a language you don’t speak. Fragrant petals lie on every horizontal surface imaginable, and there’s a small water feature in the corner of the room, plashing away. This is Memoir’s luxurious, almost indolent phase, all friendly-but-exotic: rose petal sherbet and velvet ottomans, tuberose flowers scattered over the mosaic floor, delicately beaded leather sandals, smiles and henna. There’s an older woman squatting on her haunches in another corner of the room, grinding herbs and spices and what-all, you don’t even know, into beautifying pastes. Incense burns in a brazier. The houris take your arm, smiling and speaking encouragingly, and lead you to a couch where they brush your hair and apply those strange spicy-herbal pastes to your skin. All you can do is nod and smile back, and offer up your face for anointing, and your hands for henna painting.
After a long while, Memoir’s flowers and incense fade, leading the wearer into a mountain cabin with rough wood walls and a fire in the stone fireplace. Cured pelts are stacked neatly in bundles, the result of the winter’s trapping. The snow has begun to melt outside, and on a small table near the leather sofa is a pewter plate with good sharp cheese and some crackers, a handful of dried figs, and a shortbread cookie or two. A snifter of brandy stands by the plate. You sit on the sofa and watch the flames, nibbling and sipping a little, thinking about where you’ve been. The crackle of the fire and the dripping of the snow along the gutters are hypnotic, and you drift off to sleep under a woolen blanket someone has thoughtfully draped along the back of the sofa.
Memoir lasts for several hours: one hefty spray will go at least twelve hours on me, and sometimes fourteen, from cold mountain air top through the social room of the harem, its flowers and cheerfulness, down to the smoky cabin.
Remember how disappointed I was in Honour Woman? I’d thought, “Ooh, Amouage does a white floral, I’m bound to love that,” and then it turned out really wrong for me. Well – Memoir is at heart another white floral, albeit the funhouse, wacky-dream version rather than the ikebana Japanese one. It is still, to me, fifty-’leven kinds of weird, but it’s like the strange dream you have that you’re in a house with something new behind every door, and just before you wake up, you realize that it’s really your house. You’re home.