Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Birkin’s gift for imparting a sense of singularity and sex appeal to anything she embraces is apparent in the fragrance created for her in 2006 by British perfumer Lyn Harrison. L’Air de Rien—“the air of nothing”—is said to have been inspired by Birkin’s favorite smells: dusty libraries, old books, her father’s pipe, floor polish, an empty chest of drawers, and old forgotten houses. And indeed, L’Air de Rien does succeed in referencing a good many of these things, but in an abstract way that makes one realize that the air of nothing, in this case, is actually the air of something you can’t quite put your finger on—except to say that this something-you-can’t-put-your-finger-on smells like something that has been touched by human hands. With notes of French oak moss, Tunisian neroli, sweet musk, amber and vanilla, L’Air de Rien is a filmy fragrance that is vaguely sweet and mentholated (reminding me of tobacco), a bit paper-y and musty (like an old library), a trifle powdery and woody (like a sachet left behind in a drawer), and musky in a way that smells to me like skin that is neither clean nor dirty, but somewhere in that in-between stage I can only describe as lived-in. While perfume reviewers on the various blogs and online forums often describe L’Air de Rien as having a whiff of the erotic about it, I can’t say that it is overly so to my nose. (As an aside, I should note that when indolic notes are featured in musk-heavy scents, I become somewhat anosmic to them, whereas when they are achieved with white flowers like jasmine and orange blossom, such as in Mona di Orio Nuit Noire, or featured as a facet in sharper compositions like Guerlain Jicky, I’m much more aware of them.)

While L’Air de Rien doesn’t smell overtly dirty to me, it does smell sensual in a dreamy kind of way. I’ve been listening to a lot of old Dire Straits songs recently, and when I smell L’Air de Rien I think of “Wild West End,” of that languid beauty, recalled in both Mark Knopfler’s guitar strokes and lyrics, of how it feels to stroll through a place that’s real and alive and gritty and surreal and full of all kinds of entertainments for every kind of appetite: The part of the city where you can pick up your coffee beans and later wander across the street in the direction of the go-go dancers and, in between, rub up against all of the other seemly and unseemly beauties of the world. That’s the attraction L’Air de Rien holds for me: it presents a mix of smells that encompass both the sweet and the stale—smells that are small and quiet and not exotic enough to command attention on their own—and then marries them to a gently animalic, skin-like musk that puts a human stain on them. It’s this element of human stain (for lack of a better description on my part) that makes L’Air de Rien smell intimate and, therefore, compelling. That it’s achieved through the gauziness of oak moss and musk is what ensures that there is also this sense of nothingness, of remove. L’Air de Rien makes me feel as if I’m surrounded by something I should be able to reach out and touch, yet with all of the hard-edges of that something erased, I feel distanced by the attempt, too.

Making me think that L’Air de Rien might very well be the scent of longing and nostalgia for the kinds of things that we say, with feigned indifference, are nothing when in truth they are the very things that hold us here.

Miller Harris L'Air de Rien is hard to find in the US anymore (due to restrictions, the company no longer ships their products here). I have seen it offered on perfume discounting sites at prices ranges from $70 to $118, and those living in Europe can order it directly from the Miller Harris website.


Images: Photo (top of page) of Jane Birkin, circa 1970, is from soundunwound.com; photo of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin is from lastfm.com; and bottle image is from the German website Flaconi, where it can be purchased..

December 13, 2011:

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Miller Harris L’Air de Rien:

The Air of Nothing and Everything that’s Real

Not long ago, I was reading about men’s fragrances at another blog and was struck by the insightful remarks made in the comments section by a certain fellow. Actually, I’d been bumping into his comments at varous blogs I visit—always impressed by his soft-spoken intelligence—but had never taken the time to click on his gravatar and check him out. I will admit I don’t always seek out every new voice I come across in my wanderings, not because I’m not interested in new voices, but simply because the size of my current reading list would suggest I ought to trim rather than add to it. But this particular voice exerted a pull on me, so follow it I finally did, to its owner, Christos—a gentleman from Athens, Greece—and his perfume blog, Memory of Scent, where I have since become a permanent tourist. Christos not only writes in a quietly articulate manner I adore, but a recent perfume package swap with him confirms that we share a similar aesthetic when it comes to Orientals. He sent me decants of some real beauties—Equistrius and Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire, vintage Jardin du Nil and the newer formulation of Route du Vetiver from the house of Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, to name a few—but the one I’ve been wearing pretty much non-stop lately is L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris.

To those in the perfume-lovin’ community, L’Air de Rien is as fabled a scent as the woman it was created for: Jane Birkin, the British-born singer and actress who became one of France’s greatest imports when, in the late sixties, she teamed up with French singer-actor-director Serge Gainsbourg. The two very quickly became the sexiest couple on the planet when they recorded “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” a song written as a smoldering dialogue between two lovers as they’re gettin’ it on, and delivered convincingly too, thanks to the breathy, moaning style in which Birkin held up her half of the duet. A thirteen-year collaboration between the couple produced songs, films, a famous and talented daughter (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and a collection of photographs that I imagine must have provided a constant source of fuel for Serge Gainsbourg’s ego, because surely no other man has ever been captured in so many sexy poses with one of the world’s most beautiful and lusted-after of women.