For "an abstract piece of art", Superstitious by Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums and Alber Elbaz offers a very animalistic opening, blending with snow-white aldehydes. You know where this is going. The perfume is going the way of great dichotomies, one of the proven ways to build tension in a fragrance composition by bottling the seemingly separate: dirt and purity at the same time, black and white.
Superstitious, presented officially as a "grand aldehyde floral" is not only that but also a beastly scent, that of a grand sophisticated animal: the woman or Venus in furs...
You can look at it as an intensified version of the fur perfume of yore, the one meant to be worn with pearls, mink, diamonds and a generous slap of lipstick. Since the 20s and then 40s, the fur scent in Superstitious has become more figuratively animalistic. You can visualize a thick bison skin in which you sink ankle-deep. It feels wilder than the typical old-money fur perfume of yesteryear, which tended to smell humoral: milk and sex. The vintagey vibe is there, equipoised between earthy mushrooms and elegant mold.
To be noted is also a marked citrusy kick to the blend, which adds an almost Coca-Cola-like impression to this revivalist work, which smells of a bygone era while giving off a modernist edge, as if you were looking at the black and white, luminous photograph of a woman sipping with a straw from a retro bottle of coke, well past midnight, all dressed up in elegant finery while leaning on the counter of a soda fountain spot in town. But it's not the 1950s. It's 2017.
The aldehydes are effervescent and musky with both creamy and powdery facets. The citruses are pretty relentless coupled with the fizzy aldehydes.
If you expected the new perfume to lift a page or two from the book of Arpège by Lanvin, the house for which Alber Elbaz worked, considered to be its classic, and itself a redux or reinterpretation of Chanel No.5, you would be wrong. What comes knocking at the door of your memory is another "grand perfume" of the past: Ma Griffe by Carven, albeit completely taken apart and pulled together again into a new fragrance with both a past and a future. Parfum d'Hermès also comes to your mind after further thinking. Calèche by Hermès seeps into your memory flux as well, particularly in the long drydown stage.
To Guard against Evil © CHANT WAGNER 2017
Frédéric Malle has explained that Superstitious stems initially from his desire of an artistic collaboration with Alber Elbaz, which came to be shared, and that it is a statement about the undercurrent forces of life, which never ever come truly to light. And no, it is not only about mystery, but also about irrationality, superstition, personal, gut instinct - and a parallel universe, "the sixth sense". Malle explained that what came to be pondered over a luncheon in the city is that,
"In a world where life seems programmed, organized and logical, Alber sees the irrational - neglected everywhere we are and in everything we do - as essential.
Beyond words, images and reason, we must let ourselves be guided by a sixth sense - by our superstitions - free from judgment and unsuppressed. We must let ourselves go. We must trust our instincts."
You can debate as to the seeming rarefaction of irrationality in the world. I hold the opposite view. What can be retained after smelling the fragrance is that it does not matter whether the perfume smells like anything recognizable in the story-telling taking place around a series of luncheons between a fragrance editor and a fashion designer meeting in a restaurant in Paris. They have their own trains of thoughts; they are going to express their desires and worldviews. But in the end, the perfume does not have to smell that way. And in fact, it does not, at all.
"If we were to create a fragrance together, we said, it would possess this mysterious element. Like a book open to interpretation, it would let the imagination run free. And like Alber's own fashion designs, it would empower whomever wore it, leaving an indelible trace long after it passed.
Almost immediately we knew if we were to create such a scent, it would bear the name Superstitious. And that is how it began."
Indeed, Malle insists at the same time that Superstitious is a perfumer's perfume, one of those compositions which are freely created in solitude by the perfumer, Dominique Ropion in this case, who has already created several Editions de Parfums scents. It so happens, that he had one of those perfumer's studies and that Elbaz fell in love with it. It's a tradition of near happenstance that Malle loves bringing back to life. We will go with this interpretation. The composition is a complex deconstructed-reconstructed beast of a perfume. It both exposes the internal mechanics of a visible structure and hides them with new clothes. It's a perfume, refashioned. And what you smell inside the body of Superstitious is Ma Griffe or Calèche rather than Arpège.
To Guard against Evil II © CHANT WAGNER 2017
How so? When you push aside the aldehydes, the coca-cola and what we've talked about already, there is an echo of the fruity gardenia smell of Ma Griffe, but one in which the spicy facet of it, its smell of Fenugreek, has been amplified and made to mesh with animalic notes, while the floral aspect has been decreased. So, do not be surprised if you catch a whiff of the Indian spice store suddenly. Superstitious is spicy and exotic in a subtle manner.
Its complexity is more internal than external. On the surface, Superstitious borrows from the codes of niche perfumery, in particular for its propensity to smell a bit monolithical. It could be a bit too uniform, if not for the sense that a rethink is at play involving the history of perfumery. On your skin, Superstitious smells like aldehydes amplified by musk and an animalic Labdanum. It even manages to smell almost like civet at one point, fooling you into believing that you've uncorked a bottle of time-travelled scent. But it's really about refashioning the history of perfumery and dressing women in their best vintage clothes.
You could argue as to whether the artistic mission of niche perfumery - set in particular by Frédéric Malle - has been betrayed. Superstitious is superbly crafted, a quality you experience to the full in the very long drydown and lasting sillage. It is not however devoid of a surplus of external references, which turns it into almost a conceptual fragrance - certainly a deeply historicized one.