Penhaligon's Empressa Eau de Parfum // On Designer & Niche Perfumes (2018) {Perfume Review & Musings}


The new Empressa edp by Penhaligon's can be pegged as a high-end fruity-floral. It means that it's not premeditated to go for the jugular and wallets of young women primarily. As I write these words, it suddenly hits me that the perfume name I was looking for over the past few days is Miss Dior, the ca.-2011 version, the one I have. Empressa's prototype or rather inspiration is Miss Dior rather than La Vie est Belle, although an understated gourmand, pillowy quality explains why you might start wondering about a possible kinship with the latter...

The opening is that of a fruity-floral - and while the ethyl maltol of the original edt has been officially suppressed from the list of notes in 2018, it appears to still be contributing to the overall effect of the new eau de parfum version of it, its re-interpreted form four years later. The fruity-floralcy has been amplified. It's been amped up by nuances of overipeness, wilted fruit flesh exhaling its next-to-last sigh under the tropics; this aspect is also found in the Miss Dior ca. 2011. A counterpoint of agrumes adds a touch of tartness to the fruity-floral mess - in the sense of a slightly dissheveled, devil-may-care dessert like the Eton Mess.

After this ripe and riper introduction, a new nuance surfaces, which is a bit mineraly, but also aquatic. This creates a bit of hardness in the fragrance as well as a measure of coldness, lest the perfume be overly about fruit explosion and plush, round lines. The perfume fizzes coolly and calmly now thanks to low-temp aldehydes, it seems, which play a contrasting sensation to the initial tropical medley.

The base of the composition is lasting with a sensual effect of dark musk in the final stages. Miss Dior has in contrast to this, a solar, beach-y musk drydown.

We will have occasion to go back to the links between designer and niche perfumery, and how they pretend to be different but are in fact quite related. This is one example of the actual conversation they're having behind lattice screens.


Paul Jacoulet - Fumées de Santal - Mandchoukuo

Empressa EDP plays on this false - or at least overplayed - demarcation line, in many respects. For one thing, it is simpler than Miss Dior. One can chalk it up to niche aesthetics which privilege clearer structures and punchier ideas, or decide it's less complex when you value the notion. A niche perfume can be content in its own universe of values with being sleek, cool and sophisticated - and streamlined. There is a love of minimalism inherent to the genre. Despite the fact that Empressa edt and edp are both inspired by the notion of luxury - the sheen of pearls and rolls of silk on trade routes - you have to realize that it is actually less complex perfumistically speaking than Miss Dior.

By "perfumistic", we mean a mix of technicity and psychology which allows an able and especially a great perfumer to play relentlessly with your emotions. In Miss Dior, there is a constant tension between elements. It makes you think of a waltz both melancholy and joyous. You have to close your eyes to better inhale the fragrance and literally feel mentally inebriated by it. It's a precious moment of dazzling of the senses and mind, which perfumery is particularly apt at creating, without being a drug.

With Empressa, while sensuality is not absent in it, it shows in the end a brainier approach to perfume-making. A designer perfume can be very clear and readable. It is actually a pleasure to happen on such an enlightened perfume sometimes. But perhaps what is most lacking in niche perfumes in general is what I would call an interiorized sense of lyricism, this idea that life can be turmoil, trouble, tension and repeated expression of longing. Not all designer scents contain those seeds of the life of emotions, only the good ones. But somehow, I think it's safe to say that the operatic element is more present in designer than in niche, culturally speaking.

After all, perfumes are also called "compositions."In the more traditional domain of so-called designer perfumery, the aesthetic influence of music is historically more present. When the first niche perfumes were created they thought not of musicality but of gender reversal, faraway lands, improbable, original pairings. In niche, you will find privileged sources of inspiration, like the travelogue. So while the word "empressa" sounds operatic and like a character straight out of Puccini, it is actually devoid of this lyrical tension which is present in Miss Dior however subtly. In fact, smelling the two scents side by side allowed you to better understand what is at play underneath the girly premices of Miss Dior. Underneath, there is the mastery of the art of perfumery at play. It doesn't shout. It beguiles.

Fragrance notes

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