Remember Vanilla Fields? It came out when I was 13 or so, but the market at Lincoln Junior High was already pretty much cornered by Sunflowers. Sunflowers was so ubiquitous than I hated it at the time, but now I remember the smell fondly – it was so blindingly bright and really far more distinctive than the drugstore options now. Anyway, I didn't wear either of them, but my best friend Amanda definitely wore Vanilla Fields. I understood that vanilla was something you were supposed to like, but I didn't find it very compelling even then, and I still don't care for most vanilla perfumes I smell. I guess it's because they smell more like vanillin (imitation vanilla extract) than vanilla, more like white soft-serve than Haagen-Dazs with its boozy hit at the back of your throat and visible seeds. In taste tests, most people actually prefer the imitation stuff, which is lucky for corporations because it's much cheaper. But I don't care what the masses prefer! I like real bourbon vanilla and I like Coca-Cola more than Pepsi too.
Anyway, when it's not the star of the show, I get along with vanilla in perfumes just fine. Here are a few I've worn recently with vanilla in the mix.
Cacharel Loulou – LOULOU! This perfume makes me really, really happy. I love the name, I love the blue bottle, I love the font on the box, I love the low low price, I love the smell. It's a super-raspy, powdery jasmine oriental, with a sweet cherry-almond-vanilla, ice-cream-soda accord (mimosa and heliotrope) held in check by the indolic florals and a slightly funky musk. I love that it's sort of deceptively simple, i.e., just complex enough to remain interesting even after you understand it. It doesn't change a lot as you wear it, but each whiff seems to have a little arc of its own, as though you can smell the top notes, heart and base in extremely quick succession every time you sniff your arm, like a GIF you watch over and over, a little infinitely recurring show. By the way, when florals are described as "raspy," we mean they have the olfactory "texture" of raw silk or a surface covered in fine glitter; the scent "catches" in the same way that your hand catches when you run your hand over a slightly rough material. Visually, it reminds me of the prickly spots you see when you stand up too fast and your blood pressure doesn't quite get the memo, a bit of pointillist action at the edges of your vision. White flowers like jasmine and orange blossom have this "raspy" effect naturally, and my understanding is that it's the indoles that create this impression, though indoles are often talked about casually as though they were simply animalic (like civet or castoreum). A recent and entirely welcome addition to my collection.
M. Micallef Ylang in Gold – I worried that Ylang in Gold would be another Vanille Fleur, my least favorite in M. Micallef's recent vanilla collection. In fact, Vanille Fleur should have been more like this: a floral vanilla (more vanilla, really, than creamy ylang) rather than a fruitastrophe. Initially I liked YiG, but on subsequent wears – without fear on my side – I found it tediously single-minded and not complex enough to justify its sweetness level. I kept wanting it to be either fresher or dirtier, and ideally both, with more complicating factors on either end. It's essentially a heart note looking for its top and bottom. How about some lemon and wood up in here? I love the idea of a floral vanilla, but in practice they rarely work for me. So far my favorites in this category are Annick Goutal Songes and By Kilian Sweet Redemption; both amp up the oily, even metallic aspects of natural white floral absolutes so you get plenty of laide with your jolie. (Try Lush Lust to see this idea pushed to its logical extreme.) Note that I seem to be the only person who didn't like this. The Non-Blonde, Patty at Perfume Posse, the Muse in Wooden Shoes, and Victoria at EauMG all found it quite pretty, even glamorous. Carrie at Eyeliner on a Cat, who agreed with me on the Vanille collection, calls YiG "absolutely delicious." (Angela at Now Smell This calls it pretty too, but seems fairly bored by pretty.) So I guess it's just me.
Soivohle’ A Rose for Beacon Free – I'm a sucker for roses, and a sucker for gourmands, so A Rose for Beacon Free, a gourmand rose that sounds oddly like a YA book, is sidling up to me with an angle. Like Rosa sur Reuse, ARFBF is very complex and a little unsettling. There's a very rich caramel accord – I picture a sauce so thick that it layers in ribbons when you pour it – but it's also truly floral, not just "pink" the way so many "rose" perfumes can be. (Tocade, in particular, smells like pink, soapy vanilla to me, not like a Tea Rose with vanilla on the side, as I'd hoped.) And the florals are slightly animalic, in a retro way – there's a hissy green hint of blackcurrant bud as well as a quiet undercurrent of oakmoss, so it's almost a gourmand-chypre hybrid. As it dries down, a surprising jasmine note, with jasmine's metallic edge, comes to the fore. Given its density and richness, A Rose for Beacon Free is definitely a floral gourmand for winter, along the lines of the even sweeter and more baroque Mahjoun from DSH, whereas Dawn's Pretty & Pink and Rose Praline from Parfums de Rosine are more sheer and peppy, so that I crave them most in warmer weather.
Annick Goutal Ambre Fetiche – Of all the supposedly smoky perfumes I've smelled (smoky smells and flavors are pretty much my favorite – woodsmoke, leather, tobacco, bacon, smoked paprika, etc.), Ambre Fetiche is the only one that truly smells like something burning, to an almost disconcerting degree. The top notes smell less like amber and more like a rubber glove near a lit butane torch. It's hard to tell if this is entirely on purpose or partly an effect of the woody amber materials that often pop up in the AG line. In any case, it's impressively raw and lives up to its fetish-referencing name, except that it's more of a leather, to my nose, than an amber. So does it belong in this category? Sorta – a custardy vanilla comes out to play in the drydown. Part of me really likes it, especially as it eases down into the skin – oily, leathery smells always take me back to my childhood, running out to the garage in the dark to tell my dad that dinner was ready. (He was a car hobbyist in those days – he rebuilt the engine of the big old Jeep Cherokee I drove in high school, dubbed "Tiger" by the aforementioned Amanda.) But it's a bit rough around the edges, and even though it seems strong when you first spray it on, it ends up thin compared to similar offerings from, say, Liz Zorn or Andy Tauer. Some lines I enjoy for their roughness, but Annick Goutal doesn't seem quite charming enough to pull it off – or maybe it's just that the bottles lead me to expect more elegance.