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Portrait of a Lady is described on the Malle website as a baroque perfume, which it is; but there’s something about the way this rose exhales its fruity breath before stealing into the shadows—the way it later takes cover under a vapor of musk that renders it as translucent and, yet, omnipresent as a dream—that leads me to classify it as Modern Baroque. Remember that old-school rock-n-roll notion of what a lady once was? The kind of looker who made her guy look good just by appearing cool and stylish on his arm in public, but whose eyes spoke of the secret attractions of the night they would be running headlong into, where most of the rest of the world couldn’t follow. I’m not saying this kind of lady didn’t court celebrity—only that she managed to give the favorable impression that the actual celebrity she was courting was indeed the rocker boyfriend around whose arm (and lifestyle) she was entwined, and not the ogling paparazzi waiting in the wings. At any rate, that’s precisely the kind of lady Portrait of a Lady embodies for me: a lady who manages to be classy and elegant but has a wild-child streak to her, like one of those famous-rocker girlfriends from the 1960s and ’70s. Think bohemian English-rose Pattie Boyd meets sultry, club-hopping Bianca Jagger, and you get an idea of what this fragrance is like in terms of its sensibility.
Notes for Portrait of a Lady include: Turkish rose essence, black currant (cassis), raspberry, cinnamon, clove, rose absolute, patchouli, sandalwood, ambroxan, and white-musk cocktail.
Rose made intoxicatingly fruity by the addition of raspberry and black currant is how this fragrance gets off to its juicy start. (There’s a ruby-red-grapefruit juiciness to it that gets my heart racing in the same manner as Mark Knopfler’s driving guitar riffs in Expresso Love.) As deeper notes move in—a caress of warm spice and patchouli bearing its tinge of camphor—the berried-rose intensifies and becomes jam-like in a way that conveys the utter depth of the rose, drawing your attention to the full dimensions of this flower’s beauty. Though one must acknowledge that there is gourmand-like quality to the fragrance in its earlier stages, it doesn’t make me think of food so much as it does the kind of woman who is so beautiful that it’s hard to form a thought that doesn’t detour immediately to her lips, to the sensual, edible quality of her mouth.
Portrait of a Lady draws the olfactory viewer to these berry-stained lips and then offers the scent of her cheek, too, lightly dusted with expensive face powder. There is nothing in the list of fragrance notes that is suggestive of this smell of delicate powder, and yet I smell it plainly and am not alone in thinking it’s there: some other reviewers have noted it too. I might as well mention here that Portrait of a Lady’s formula was arrived at by expanding upon another fragrance in the Malle lineup—Geranium Pour Monsieur—but to my mind, Portrait of a Lady smells like it encompasses important facets of all three of its rosy predecessors in the Malle lineup: Lipstick Rose, with its vintage cosmetics smell; Une Rose, with its deep honeyed-rose-meets-the-dark-underworld aroma; and Geranium Pour Monsieur, with its zingy rose-geranium suspended in a cloud of white musks.
Keeping Portrait of a Lady from smelling too sweet and too lady-like is its ambery and woody base accord that’s much like a dusky shadow—the olfactory setting in which this portrait takes place. Patchouli and ambroxan combine to add elegant gravity and a nighttime feel to the scent. They allude to twilight and the night still being young; their opaque character not so dense as to suggest anything pitch black.
The white-musk cocktail that gathers this olfactory picture into its fold lends, to what would otherwise be a thick and weighty fragrance, a sense of the diaphanous. This is not to say that the musk diffuses it into a sheer misty veil; au contraire, this fragrance is as baroque as it is modern. (It would have benefitted by being bottled like a parfum, in a dab-bottle rather than a spray-bottle.) But the musk certainly adds fluidity to this formula, making Portrait of a Lady bend and breathe and float into the night air, her wildly beating heart and potent beauty swirling in a fog that surrounds you, not as in a still and quiet picture but a vivid, rock-n-roll dream.
She gets the sun in the daytime
Perfume in the dusk
And she comes out in the night time
With the honeysuckle musk
Because she smells just like a rose
And she tastes just like a peach
She got me walking where the wildlife goes
I’d do anything to reach her†
March 9, 2011:
Frederic Malle’s Portrait of a Lady: Essence of a Dream
Portrait of a Lady can be purchased from the Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle website or from Barneys.com; $300 for 100 ml.
†Lyrics from "Expresso Love" by Mark Knopfler from the 1980 Dire Straits album Making Movies, copyright Universal Music Publishing Group.
Image: Actress Naomi Watts photographed by Peter Lindbergh for David Yurman jewelry ad circa 2007-08.
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Every season or two, there seems to be one big fragrance launch that divides online perfumistas between the love-it and hate-it camps. In late fall of 2010, that fragrance was Portrait of a Lady, the rose-and-patchouli oriental created by perfumer Dominique Ropion for Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. From first whiff, I’ve been in the love-it camp: this is my kind of rose perfume—intense and so unabashedly beautiful that it has a wild and free character to it, yet with enough dark notes enveloping it that it still retains an air of the mysterious too. Wearing it, I find this old Dire Straits song from 1980—“Expresso Love”—pulsing through my head:
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