Perfume Review of Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li
How It Smells Like
The opening of the latest Hermès fragrance to launch is powdery, green - much more powdery than one would expect from a Jean-Claude Ellena opus. In fact, the new perfume readily recalls to my mind a very much forgotten-about fragrance, Eau de Fraîcheur by Weil (1961), which to me has always been distinguishable for its grade 9 on the scale of 10 of white-musk powderiness. The composition is also warm in personality and suprisingly overdosed with labdanum (Cistus ladanifer)...
Le Jardin de Monsieur Li rather than being a Chinese ink painting in scented form readily conjures up a mirage-like vision of the coastal sights of the Mediterranean basin. Nowhere is to be seen a classical Chinese garden despite the brand's effort to publicize images of perfectly round architectural vistas looking onto a calm, meditative, 1000-old vegetation as graceful as bamboos.
Citruses then make their entrance together with an ozonic sensation soon superseding the persistent warmth of the labdanum.
If you imagined like I did that this was bound to be a new chapter added to Ellena's incursion into the Forbidden City in Beijing which gave The Different Company Osmanthus and Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan in the past, you would be mistaken. This is, very curiously so, a Mediterranean scent to the bones, one which seems to echo the first fragrance in the Jardin collection - conceptually at least - Un Jardin en Méditerrannée. Subtle milky, cardamom-y and melon-y nuances recall that other captured and fantasized garden in the collection, Un Jardin Après La Mousson, his most outwardly original fragrance from the collection in which it rains during monsoon time of spicy, ginger-y drops of milk.
In terms of more external influences, you are reminded of labdanum-rich opuses meant to suggest the closeness of the sea and the Mediterranean scent of the underbrush, namely, Martin Margiela Untitled and Armani Acqua di Gioia. But this atmosphere is twisted into a sensory atmosphere smelling more lactonic - even a bit caramel-y - recalling those Chinese milky-white caramels of the popular White Rabbit brand. This is the moment when the Middle Kingdom presence is perhaps best felt to this nose.
Le Jardin de Monsieur Ellena
Ellena let Hermès write that the garden of Mr. Li is partly a figment of the imagination, partly a meditation on reality. M. Li is actually a reference to the name of the painter Li Xin whose work adorns the press materials and outer packaging of the fragrance.
"Le Jardin de Monsieur Li describes a Chinese garden somewhere between reality and imagination. A place for meditation where strolling is allied to thought, and every step sets the imagination free."
The perfumer released an anchoring text for the perfume,
"I remembered the smell of ponds, the smell of jasmine, the smell of wet stones, of plum trees, kumquats and giant bamboos. It was all there, and in the ponds there were even carp steadily working towards their hundredth birthday."
A short promotional film done in the documentary style was also released which invites you to smell a priori,
"The scent of jasmine and wet stones,
Hints of plum trees, and kumquats bathed in dew,
Sichuan pepper in the shade of a giant bamboo,
A haven of peace."
None of this matter however when you smell the perfume which smells of anything but of those suggested notes, well kumquat, yes, perhaps, at a distance. Who said the text had to allude to a list of notes ? We may interpret it as such but experiencing the composition lets you think that this is an olfactory poem standing next to the perfume like a springboard for the imagination rather than a faithful descriptive aid. What might be closer to the personality of the scent is this,
"Create a garden To be transported away from the world's turmoil, And far from its constraints. Live in one's garden To be immersed in the beauty of the world, And become one with its imprint."
Le Jardin de Monsieur Li might be in fact, more to the point, Le Jardin de Monsieur Ellena.
In truth, Le Jardin de Monsieur Li smells more of a dream of the Mediterranean as well as of a fantasy garden growing under the wind of the Provence back-country, planted with Willy Tonkaesque milky-white caramel candies. There is a greenness which comes bathed in milk as well. The greenness subtly recall the retro charm of the viridian fragrances of the 70s, in particular Ivoire by Balmain (1980) which closed the decade. But it is never quite as lady-like and aldehydic to qualify frankly as a nostalgic 1970s retake.
There is something about Le Jardin de Monsieur Li which could also recall Rosabotanica a bit in its minty green and lactonic effect, which actually came after Un Jardin après la Mousson. This mentholated facet creates an almost Alpine freshness effect, consistent with the landscape of the Provence region.
I said when reviewing Un Jardin après la Mousson for which the perfumer travelled to South India that he could just as well had stayed at home and leafed through his famed black Moleskine notebooks. I wrote then,
"It stands on its own even without the Kerala story, even better without it in fact, and could even be made less interesting as it is made to cohere exaggeratedly with the monsoon narrative. The latest Jardin is first and foremost a personal work where the internal references matter more than the external ones."
Ellena's house and garden in Cabris are known for their roots firmly planted in the Mediterranean landscape. What the perfumer sees always from the perspective of his glass house is the Provence region.
The Transparent Scent of Subversion
At the same time, there is uncharacteristically so a devil-may-care attitude about this composition as if the perfumer had decided he really didn't care about producing once more a personal olfactive meditation. The fragrance is traversed with external, even commercial influences, which is quite uncharacteristic of the perfumer's style. I think this leaning I started to experience with Jour d'Hermès.
I have to confess that this reinforces the sensation in me felt the first time with Jour d'Hermès and then also with Jour d'Hermès Gardénia more recently that Ellena is showing some form of dissatisfaction or perhaps detachment from Hermès. This is not an attentive, affective or affecting work. This is a bit of a libel written with a mocking tone. It is a heteroclite meli-melo of both personal and "market-sensitive" accords.
Jean-Claude Ellena is not trying very hard anymore, it seems. As we know that he is preparing to retire from his position as the Hermès in-house perfume, we might understand why he is less invested in perfumery creation although the way he expresses this further suggests more than detachment perhaps some sort of discontent with the evolution.
On a more positive note, the perfumer might be putting aside his most interesting ideas at the moment so that he can employ them when a better opportunity arises. A major perfumer like Pierre Bourdon has even set up his own brand eight years into official retirement although he has opted for wearability rather than crazy strange and innovative accords.
As it is, I can't help but think that Jean-Claude Ellena is wearing a bit of a Grinch-like smile on his face as he delivers this "new", rather anemic perfume to the world from his own breezy garden with maybe a base called "I Don't Care" - or even "Vengeance" - as part of the composition. This is political subversion at its best, expressed in olfactive mode. Lest you might have forgotten, France is culturally speaking a Latin country. In such a place, even the smell of faintly perfumed transparent water can hold the meaning of a barrel of vengeful powder.