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January 14, 2010:
Yves Saint Laurent Nu: Like A Certain Character I Know…
Refined, But Quietly Fevered
Often when I’m sampling a fragrance and trying to find associations that will help me describe it to others, I find the process difficult; but then there are days when the process seems almost magical: days when I connect with a fragrance so strongly that its character becomes embodied in my mind in the form of an actual character—real or fictional—who strolls into my thoughts with the greatest of ease as if to say, “Here, let me help you out. I know this perfume—I AM this perfume—I can represent it for you.”
This happened yesterday when I was outdoors walking in the snow-covered fields and wearing Yves Saint Laurent Nu eau de parfum (a discontinued fragrance that can still be found, quite affordably, at a number of online perfume discounters and is well worth snatching up). Nu, which means “nude” in French, is a sweet-and-sexy skin scent that for much of its long wear holds the wearer in a silky, sandalwood-and-incense embrace, but which starts off with an unexpected kick of spice. Perhaps the perfumer, Jacques Cavallier, wanted Nu to reflect the way real life nudity, when we stumble upon it, often greets us with a bit of a shock—or at least a sense of the exotic—and that’s exactly what the spice does. The brightness of cardamom and the warmth of black pepper give off a vibration that is lively, and, underscored by the fizz of bergamot, almost tangy.
Nu’s initial juicy sizzle is married, however, to something quite hush-hush and delicate: a hothouse white orchid that blooms at the heart of the scent and melds nicely with the sandalwood base accord. (The official list of notes for Nu includes bergamot, white orchid, black pepper, incense absolute, woody notes, spicy notes, and vetiver.) Thus a fascinating rub exists within the otherwise mostly quiet confines of this fragrance—proving that such fragrances need not be dull; that they can, in fact, be rather richly textured—and as I was walking in the fields thinking of how to describe it, my first thought was to reference two other fragrances. “If Kenzo Jungle l’Elephant were to get L’Artisan Orchidee Blanche a little bit pregnant, the result would be similar to Yves Saint Laurent Nu,” I was going to tell you. And when I got home, just to make sure, I went to my closet and sniffed the tangy, cardamom-rich opening of the Kenzo scent, and then the refined, vanillic-iris accord of Orchidee Blanche, and determined that, yes, this was a fitting description.
All the while, a voice at the back of my mind was interrupting, saying, “Nu is the scent of Katrina Daugherty, in William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed: the elegant neighbor who seduces young Francis Phalen by walking across her yard, in the year 1897, in nothing but a gray sun hat and gray satin evening slippers.” Given my familiarity with the novel—I have re-read it several times over the twenty years that I’ve owned it—this immediate connection was not surprising. Yes, I thought; Nu is like the character of Katrina: quietly fevered. Refinement under which pulses a current of utterly naked human need. What really did floor me, though, was when I went and found my book to look up passages about Katrina, for they contained so many words and images that almost directly match the fragrance: the description of her as an orchid; the color white (represented in the foods Katrina serves Francis and a white-on-white silk shirt she gives him as a present); and her references to his Catholic religion (which always makes me think of incense, a key note in Nu).
I’ll excerpt a few of these passages here, for those who might enjoy reading them. And for those of you who don’t care for these longer posts that cater to bibliophiles, I apologize, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I’m a bit like Katrina in that way.
Katrina was not only the rarest bird in his life, but very likely the rarest bird ever to nest on Colonie Street. She brought to this street of working-class Irish a posture of elegance that had instantly earned her glares of envy and hostility from the neighbors. But within a year of residence in her new house (a scaled-down copy of the Elk Street mansion in which she had been born and nurtured like a tropical orchid, and where she had lived until she married Edward Daugherty, the writer, whose work and words, whose speech and race, were anathema to Katrina’s father, and who, as a compromise for his bride, built the replica that would maintain her in her cocoon, but built it in a neighborhood where he would never be an outlander, and built it lavishly until he ran out of capital and was forced to hire neighborhood help, such as Francis, to finish it), her charm and generosity, her absence of pretension, and her abundance of the human virtues transformed most of her neighbors’ hostility into fond attention and admiration.
. . . .
She called him to lunch the day he installed the new awnings. After the first day she always chose a time to talk with him when her husband was elsewhere and her son in school. She served lobster gratiné, asparagus with hollandaise, and Blanc de Blancs. Only the asparagus, without sauce, had Francis ever tasted before. . . .
When they had eaten, Katrina filled her own and Francis’s wineglasses and set them on the octagonal and marble-topped table in front of the sofa where she always sat; and he sat in what had now become his chair. He drank all of the wine and she refilled his glass as they talked of asparagus and lobster and she taught him the meaning of gratiné, and why a French word was used to describe a dish made in Albany from a lobster caught in Maine.
“Wondrous things come from France,” she said to him, and by this time he was at ease in the suffusion of wine and pleasure and possibility, and he gave her his fullest attention. “Do you know Saint Anthony of Egypt, Francis? He is of your faith, a faith I cherish without embracing. I speak of him because of the way he was tempted with the flesh and I speak too of my poet, who frightens me because he sees what men should not see in women. He is dead these thirty years, my poet, but he sees through me still with his image of a caged woman ripping apart the body of a living rabbit with her teeth. Enough, says her keeper, you should not spend all you receive in one day, and he pulls the rabbit from her, letting some of its intestines dangle from her teeth. She remains hungry, with only a taste of what might nourish her. Oh, little Francis, my rabbit, you must not fear me. I shall not rip you to pieces and let your sweet intestines dangle from my teeth. Beautiful Francis of sweet excellence in many things, beautiful young man whom I covet, please do not speak ill of me. Do not say Katrina was made for the fire of luxuria, for you must understand that I am Anthony and am tempted by the devil with the sweetness of yourself in my house, in my kitchen, in my yard, in my tree of trees, sweet Francis who carried me naked in his arms.”
“I couldn’t let you go out in the street with no clothes on,” Francis said. “You’d get arrested.”
“I know you couldn’t,” Katrina said. “That’s precisely why I did it.” †
†Ironweed, copyright © 1983 by Willian Kennedy (Penguin Books, New York, 1984, pp. 105, 108, 109-110)
Images: Nude, 1936 is by photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958); bottle image of Yves Saint Laurent Nu eau de parfum is from perfumeblvd.com.
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[Note: In the time since this review was originally published, Yves Saint Laurent Nu was relaunched and is no longer discontinued, but from what I've heard, the current version is no match for the original (in other words, the reformulation doesn't live up to the beauty of the original fragrance). Luckily, the original version can still be found at perfume discounters and auction sites like eBay, but the prices have climbed for it as a result. Expect to pay anywhere from $120 for 30-ml bottle to $215 for a 100-ml bottle. And make sure that the bottle you are purchasing looks like the silver, hockey-puck shaped bottle pictured below. (Not the blue one, which was the original edt version of Nu, which I've heard was not as good as the original eau de parfum concentration.]