Portrait of a Lady is the latest opus to come out of the house of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle and is signed by perfumer Dominique Ropion. If Malle likens his work to that of a self-described editor of perfumes rather than books, he also readily translates his activity into more traditional lingo by calling himself an "evaluator." Despite the literary reference and the homage paid to the prestigious French publishing house of Gallimard in particular which inspires part of the aesthetics of presentation of the perfume house, Frédéric Malle rejects the notion that a perfume might start with a story, a narrative. As underlined in the interview he gave the blog, raw materials are the real sources of inspiration for his vision of perfumery.
The collaboration between the two men - their 8th, including the creation of 3 home fragrances - here stems from their combined love and "avid" wearing of Géranium pour Monsieur which they also co-created in 2009. They both had the intuition of taking an accord found in the fresh, mint-laden masculine fragrance resting on benzoin, musk, sandalwood, patchouli and incense, with the prurpose in their minds of turning it into "a modern oriental fragrance."
"Our mutual trust has become such that we sometimes dare start a fragrance without any precise plan or goal, hoping that our explorations will take us somewhere interesting.
Portrait of a Lady is the result of one of these olfactory adventures."
Malle has specified that the name of the fragrance comes from a general impression of aristocratic elegance exuded by Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James but does not aim to put the novel into a fragrance structure. The form of the perfume was complete when the name came to him and therefore probing the depths of the analogy could be done but with the caveat that most of it would be a reference to the unconscious and mainly interpretative on the part of the reviewer.
I will offer images and impressions that the perfume evoked in me prior to doing the interview with some added comments post-interview.
Perfume notes: benzoin, musk, sandalwood, patchouli, incense, white musk cocktail, Turkish rose essence, rose absolute,cinnamon, clove, red berries accord, blackcurrant, .
Portrait of a Lady takes the genre of the deep, dark oriental rose and gives it further asperities, further dirtiness despite using some white musk to make it more feminine, exploring the limits of both pungency and sweetness and offering one of the darkest rose compositions available on the market. I like to think of it as having been devised with invisible, arachnean-like thorns, scratching the delicate face of a Victorian lady, whose pallor is half-masked by her hat veil. There is something smoky and blurry about the perfume which conveys this sense of mystery and sartorial smoke-screen playing, but also an undercurrent of masculinity which is not surprising and befits the independent persona of Isabel Archer...
In terms of fragrance filiation, one is invited to think of predecessors like Nombre Noir by Serge Lutens and its descendant, Rose de Nuit by the same house. Portrait of a Lady has the berry, Damascone-richness of Nahéma by Guerlain but counterpoised with the near-screeching pungency of musk. Frédéric Malle said in the blog interview (see in French) that Guerlain Nahéma is one of the rose compositions that have had a great impact on him when it came out in 1979.
In Portrait of a Lady the lesson in boldness, overdose and fruitiness was retained. Closer in time, I would compare it also to By Kilian Rose Oud due to its oud character (this ingredient or accord is not listed), but with more of a modernist accent in its seeming attraction for machinery and speed, in its subtle comingling of cold metallic accents with warm animalic notes. Acknowledged to be involuntary yet in the end wholly acceptable to the two noses, these metallic nuances pertaining to the plentiful rose essence from Turkey recall the hard parts of a rose, its slightly defensive and angular stance.
To be noted also is the presence of Ambroxan in the fragrance, which contributes to its masculine side. If Malle refuses the obligatory incursions of Hedione, Lilial and Iso E Super, he seems to take exception with this popular masculine nuance since 1988 as found in the bestseller Cool Water by Davidoff.
Portrait of a Lady noticeably also adds an almost masculine sense of intensity - it makes you think of fast cars - to the usual depiction of dark, brooding Gothic roses. It is dungeon-like for its dark corners. Maybe there is a bête du Gévaudan lurking in the cellars while the stones of the mosque-like castle were built with oud paste. The rose here feels like it was crossed with a black leather riding-crop made wet by the morning dew. Imagine this lady riding on a steaming horse in the morning wearing opulent black skirts in open country, the folds of the thick material holding traces of burning incense from the mass at church.
The scent of a violet-rose scented face powder next arises from the composition calling attention anew to the face of the lady under a chiffon veil.
It is as if the perfume hesitated between its original masculine identity - Géranium pour Monsieur - and its new feminine embodiment. From the masculine formulation it borrows a sense of rush and movement, a suggestion of dynamism, a breath of clean oxygen. The new fragrance is that of a seductive horsewoman, a woman who likes leather just as much as roses.
The subtly loamy scent of the synthetic material Patchoulol appears better in the drydown helping to plant the atmosphere of a misty forest filled with the presence of this cavalière. The patchouli which is said to comprise 1/3 of the formula is perceptible in arachnean, smoky guise. It is a subtle, refined patchouli miles away from a 70s hippie reference.
While Portrait of a Lady offers undeniably an atmospheric and reflective quality, its composition remains linear and bold. It is not a perfume which develops unexpected twists, except for some natural secondary nuances. On the other hand, it offers a dramatic presence.
I have smelled it on a couple of women on the street and I can add that it has a signature: it is instantly recognizable with its rose-on-a-bed-of-dirty-musk, its heavy velvet-like weightiness, its black and ruby intensity.
The longer drydown is not as enduring as one might have expected for an opulent style of perfumery. Is it because of the significant presence of naturals which evaporates more quickly? The perfume at one point finishes its course and almost vanishes like a ghost instead of deepening the sensations for hours on end. In this new relationship to time, it is also modern and self-effacing, ready to leave room for other perfumes to be experienced.