Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady

...a Nahema for the new century.




It was the purchase of a bottle of Keiko Mecheri Oliban several years ago that upgraded me from a straight incense fiend into a rose and incense fiend. And then when oud wood began regularly beefing up rose perfumes, much like added calcium in breakfast cereals, I made sure I got my RDA with regular servings of People of the Labyrinths A*Maze, Juliette Has a Gun Midnight Oud, Montale White Aoud, and the exalted Amouage Homage Attar.

So when I started hearing talk about a new Frédéric Malle scent combining incense, rose and oud, composed by Carnal Flower master Dominique Ropion no less, I went a little doolally. I pestered my local Barneys, I peppered Malle HQ with emails. When, when, oh WHEN was Portrait of a Lady going to be available?

Now, now, oh NOW is when it's available, dear whiffers, and NOW is when Portrait of a Lady is my newest favorite perfume ever. This Lady features a vibrant patchouli that smells uncannily of fresh, wet dirt whipped up into a dusty benzoin cloud. There's minty geranium, muffled cinnamon and tart berries. Even though the rose is billed as “a daring dosage of the best Turkish rose essence,” I perceive the rose as a kind of backwards echo drifting through the composition, rather than a front and center “I am rose, hear me roar” flower power player.

The slight sharpness of the incense contrasts beautifully with the musk's plushness. The suggestion of oud is barely, but beautifully, there. It's just a niff of that odd oudy floor polish before it swells into a leathery sourness, lacing all the prettiness together. For such a complex perfume, the brush strokes are blended beyond visibility.

Utilizing clumsy perfume math, Portrait of a Lady is the intersection between Cartier XII L’Heure Mystérieuse with its dense patchouli and incense, By Kilian Rose Oud's creamy/sour oud friction against its Turkish rose, Micallef Rose Aoud's fruity/flirty rose and oud, By Kilian Liaisons Dangereuses' bright blackcurrant/rose combo, and Chanel Coromandel's plush patchouli and benzoin blend.

And catching an unexpected huff off my t-shirt during yoga class the other day, I also flashed on Agent Provocateur. Without being as overtly “busy knickers” as AP, Portrait of Lady does share an echo of its unshowered musky rose closeness.

For all of its dusty patchouli rosy oudy musky minty berry divinity, Portrait of a Lady isn't bombastic. This is a big perfume, but incredibly, not a loud one. Despite the supergroup ingredients, the scale isn't stadium-sized, but human. The keenly calibrated blend emphasizes the players' affinity for each other, instead of their individual tendencies to showboat. The sillage caresses, rather than oppresses.

Like expensive jeans pre-worn in all the right places, Portrait of a Lady comes out of the bottle already broken in. Even when freshly applied, it smells comfortably lived-in. There's no lag time between hitting the skin and shrinking to fit.

And the fit is universal, according to Portrait of a Lady's many dedicated male wearers. Some think Frédéric Malle has painted himself into a girly corner with the name, but for those men loving the Lady on themselves, might I suggest an alternate pronunciation: “Portrait of a Laddie”?

A couple hours after liberally spritzing myself with this at the Barneys perfume counter, I was browsing at a nearby mall when a young woman near me gasped, "What perfume are you wearing? It smells beautiful!" (She really did gasp: a genuine, pearls-clutching gasp.)

You'd think this happens to me all the time, given the amount of juice in which I regularly marinate, but it doesn't. I filled her in on the details, and she confidently told me that her mother probably owned it, since she was a fragrance nut with “800 bottles of perfumes.” I just as confidently responded that I was sure her mother didn't own it, being as Portrait of a Lady had only been available for about 2 minutes, practically.

Like something out the Marshall McLuhan scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, the young woman's cell phone rang, and it was her mother. After bringing her mom up to speed on our chance meeting, she handed the phone over to me. Yes, Susan was a fumie. No, she did not have 800 bottles of perfume (“only about 200”). But yes, she was indeed the proud possessor of Portrait of Lady. Psych!




Even if you consider my fume ramblings an amusing diversion at best, take it from Susan -- a lady who knows from perfume and is smart enough to train her lovely daughter to sniff out the good shizz: Portrait of a Lady is a must-smell, and a must-have.

Malle says that in overseeing this Dominique Ropion creation, he was inspired by 80s-era Guerlain perfumes. Hearing that, I instantly thought: Nahema! Not that the two fragrances smell anything alike. Nahema is a proper adult perfume that smells like Maria Callas' dressing room after a long night: wilted rose bouquets, bowls of overripe fruit, and cigarettes stubbed out in half-drunk cocktails.




Portrait of a Lady is also a proper adult perfume, but it strips the hauteur from couture and renders luxury accessibly sensual. All that posh rose may be shot in high def, but filtered through the soft focus of benzoin, musk and oud, it becomes intimate, not intimidating.

But like Nahema, Portrait of a Lady is a swirl of sensation compressed into a halo that generously gives you all the credit for its worldly complexity. I'm thinking Portrait of a Lady just might be a Nahema for the new century.

Portrait of a Lady is available from Barneys, Les Senteurs and EditionsdeParfums.com, starting at $200 for 50ml

41 comments:

  1. So, I couldn't really tell -- you liked it? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  2. [My correspondent Tamara had trouble posting her comment, and sent it to me to post for her:]

    I just read and re-read your review on PoaL. Man Katie I knew you was my scent sistah from anutha mistah. I feel somewhat vindicated really. I LOVE this s***! It's heavenly, divine, and a gorgeous rose perfume.

    Unfortunately it seems on alot of my reg. blog haunts it's not well-received. Too much like everything else, not enough drama fo yo mama, not imaginative enough. Whatever! Haters.

    I think it's perfect and I found myself almost "hurt" that my fellow fumies couldn't smell the light that is PoaL. Well a select few do anyways- and that makes us a secret club of cool kids that love what is not liked.

    My only gripe is yeeaaaah maybe it's not a $300 perfume but if I had it I would get it.

    And huff myself silly.

    Truly, Tamara

    ReplyDelete
  3. After hearing your review I went straight to the Les Senteurs site and ordered a sample - how could I not? The key words for me were "luxury", "sensual", "intimate" - something that would be highly interesting for a day at the office without sending the message: I'm desperate and I need some action now! That's unclassy. I want something that's sophisticated and sensual at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Tamara - Really? People are saying that it's not imaginative enough? I mean, I know I was doing some dot-connecting myself between PoL and other perfumes, but just as a way to describe it. Because there's something about PoL's posh blurriness, that big softness, which sets it apart from perfumes even in its genre. In fact, its downy, gauzy sillage practically demands its own genre!

    Junelady - yes, how could you not? PoL is nothing if not sophisticated and sensual at the same time.
    Frederic Malle calls it "aristocratic". I love the idea of you smelling like this at the office. I'd love to hear what kind of comments you get.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Katie darling,

    first of all I wish you a happy fragrant X-mas!!!! With the smell of Brazilian Pau Brazil, or açaí, or caipirinha...or hawaiannas....any of those 100% brazilian fragrant stuff LOL!
    Second, why am I not impressed? By your description it could be so many other creations... I don't know darling...I am not impressed to a point to need to try this one.
    I loved the portrait of your childhood thou!
    I had the same thought my smelling my grandmothers coats. She wore Chanel nº5 and I used to think that maybe this was the smell of all grannies of the world, and that I would probably smell like that when I grew old....really old LOL ;-)

    xx, Simone

    ReplyDelete
  6. I haven't tried this yet, but I feel that Lumiere Noire is my very own Portrait. When will you review it?

    ReplyDelete
  7. No, Tamara, no! Please don't call me a hater! But alas, so far I am not among those who adore it. I do love a good incense/oud/smoky/dirty/resinous/baroque/bosom-heaving rose. Amouage Epic Woman is one of my favorites of this sort (frankincense, rose, cinnamon, oud and sandalwood). Epic wafting up from a sweater in the cold of winter is just gorgeous.

    When I tried PoaL, I initially thought of Epic-not because I would have mistaken them for one another, but because the effect seemed similar. But Poal, as I have grumbled about to any poor perfumista who will listen, has a sharp, spiky wood note that ruins the opening for me. I want to like it, I'll keep trying, but I don't feel the love yet.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Katie, I tend not to divide my fragrances into day/ night categories for the simple reason that I rarely go out at night or attend anything more night-ly than dinner at a friend's house. Therefore, I will wear everything that I have during the day - maybe in smaller amounts, but still. I will report from the office trenches when the aristocratic goodness is in my possession.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Katie,

    I so want to try this. I also wanted to try it with an open mind. The name alone is enough to make any guy cringe. I get to sample this beauty, Monday. Yep, Vegas again! I knew you would have your eyes on this, I was hoping to avoid any preconceived ideas about it. But sadly I couldn't keep away from the reviews. So know I head to Vegas wondering, will I be 300 lighter or 300 up for something else?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Finally a positive review of PoaL! I love it too, but was starting to feel very uncomfortable and lonely, like a sheep wanting to follow the herd. But, thankfully, my fellow sheep Katie loves it too, so now I can relax and enjoy (and think about my need to fit in ;))

    ReplyDelete
  11. olfactoriatravels - yes, please join my herd! Portrait of a Lady smells beautiful on my curly sheep fur.

    Gojira - this is a must-try for you, as a fellow rose/incense/oud groupie ("groudpie"?). But could be a bit puffy-guffy-girly for you. Perhaps for the wife? (And if it's any help, you'll only have to gamble enough in Vegas to win $200 for the 50ml size...)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Simone/+Q - Sending California Xmas smells to you: lemon trees and sage. And on to PoL: this one was a bit of bear to try to bring to life in words, because a large part of the pleasure I take in it is the "feel" of it in the air around me. It's that incredible, subtle sillage that softly pulsates luxury.

    Despite the fact that I quite laboriously linked PoL to a bunch a different fragrances because of their shared ingredients, it really doesn't behave like any of those ones on the skin. It comes down to the prevalence of the Lady's gauzy musk, which renders the potential thickness of rose and patchouli quite billowy and sheer. I just keep coming back to that perfumed pile of fancy lady coats as a way to describe the effect.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Melissa - I'm wearing my samp of Epic Woman to see where you're coming from. Very interesting to ping-pong between my two hands where I've sprayed Epic and "the Lady", because it's making the Lady seem more feminine than ever. In fact, if there's any sharp, spiky wood to be found, it's in Epic Woman's peppery/ambery woodpile - at least on my winter-dry skin.

    Epic Woman is very present on me, and the Lady is very "how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?". I'd say PoL has all the elements of the kind of perfumes you love, but viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Carla, Kurkdjian's Lumiere Noire pour Femme (assuming you mean the Femme version) is a refined "Ms. Nasty" glory. At least, it's a nasty launch and a refined drydown. I did discuss it in a Fall Fragrance Picks video review you might want to check out:
    http://www.katiepuckriksmells.com/2010/11/six-picks-fall-fragrances-2010.html

    ReplyDelete
  15. Katie,

    I knew that about the 50ml, just had to point out the higher priced one. We seem to be getting more expensive with each new release. Yes, I could see the wife wearing it. Spiritueuse Double Vanille is my first purchase in Vegas. I plan on testing all the recent releases. Traversee du Bosphore I want to try this. Byredo 2 new Ouds, but according to their website no oud in them! So I don't hold out much hope for them. Saffron Troublant need to retest it. You know how it is, sniffing all day and your nose is gone. Every time I go to try this one, I end up not getting everything out of it, I should. Also having this love affair with Tom Ford,LOL Tuscan Leather and Noir de Noir. Plus the new release of Fougere Royale! I hope I can get some poker in!;)

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Katie, I really enjoyed this review. Your description of this perfume makes me eager to try even though some of the ingredients would be new to my nose. But the imagery you conjured made me think of a decadent and soft pink angora pantsuit I wore in the '70's. The tunic top and matching pants were so soft and I wore it to many parties at the Marine House in the US Embassy in Moscow. Wow - a room full of handsome Marines and me all soft and fluffy! I needed this perfume, but probably was decked out in Chanel No. 5.

    I like perfumes that are more of a cloud around me than sitting squarely on my neck. This definitely seems to be a contender.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Gojira, neither of the new Byredo ouds (or is that "ouds") really flared my nostrils. Oh, but I do love that Safran Troublant!

    SoS, glad you liked this review. I was on a bit of a filibuster about the Lady, wasn't I? I love that image of soft fluffy'n'pink you surrounded by handsome marines. And actually, you're spot on: Portrait of a Lady would be purrrrfect in that setting.

    That's a good distinction you're making between cloud perfumes and the ones that sit squarely on your neck. Portrait of a Lady has really got me thinking about the two sides of the perfume fence.

    ReplyDelete
  18. SoS -- "soft pink angora pantsuit" . . . ! I've never heard of such a thing, yet am delighted at the discovery of its existence. If Portrait of a Lady even remotely resembles such a soft, fuzzy, pink angora pantsuit, then it'll be a big hit.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Ah, Nathan, yes it does exist! It was a tunic length sweater with matching pants. And something I picked up in NY as our family prepared to move to Moscow for my father's tour at the Embassy. I couldn't resist the softness of it. With my crazy platform MaryJanes I picked up in London (whoever heard of platforms - ha!), a cloud of scent was the perfect accompaniment - except of course for the Marines! Actually, that is where I met my husband, a Marine!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Katie,I'm so pleased you've found a scent that is so completely YOU. I think it's one of the main reasons we are on our scent quest (well for me anyway) so it's quite emotional when you find one that is a perfect fit. As well as other things, perfume is such a wonderful form of self-expression don't you think? So lovely that it also fulfilled your childhood perfume aspiration.

    I've been looking for a proper liqueur-like Turkisk rose for a long time so am eager to try this, despite the price tag. Great to have your enthusiastic review after reading one recently that made it sound rather dull and "prim". The mint is only thing I'm slightly concerned about (hopefully more herb than toothpaste) but everything else sounds fabulous.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Nathan and SoS, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that if Portrait of a Lady was an oufit, it would be a pink angora pantsuit.

    tara, I'm not getting "prim" from the Lady. Prim would be Balenciaga Paris. I don't mean to oversell the mint - it's more a secondary characteristic of the geranium, the scent of which vibrates between rose and a fresh mint/lemon aspect. I pick up on a mintiness in the opening of PoL, but it's passing.

    I love those liqueur-like rose perfumes too, but the Lady is more like the afterburn of those Arabic rose attars - the jet trail rather than the rocket fuel itself. It's very gauzy and sheer, rather than the thick liqueur of, say, A*Maze or my beloved Amouage Ayoon al-Maha attar.

    That's another reason why I find PoL so appealing: it has successfully grafted a baroque, heavy style onto a lightweight framework, and it's surprisingly versatile.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This is an amazing review. You're a special kind of magic on camera--you get better and better--and seeing you talk about this one especially gives me hope that it might be a goodie after all. Real treat.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks very much, brian! And Portrait of a Lady is a goodie, all right - it's just whether it's your particular flavor of goodie.

    ReplyDelete
  24. THIS is why I am such a fragrance groupie! A-MA-ZING!!!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  25. sjas - I'm feeling rather "hallelujah" about Portrait of a Lady, myself.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Katie,

    I know why you love it. Sadly it was not for me. But that has to be the best Malle new release in a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Katie, the Portrait of a Lady sample from Les Senteurs just arrived in the mail this morning and even from just sniffing the vial I can tell that this thing is pure gorgeousness!

    This means that I will get the chance to wear it in public before Christmas as I'm working next week - can't wait.

    This stuff is dangerous - I can already feel my imagination moving into overdrive - the perfumes I really like will do that to me!

    From this initial raw sniff I get a rather strong wiff of soap - not that soapiness ever bothered me in perfumes, but if you get the same thing I'm just a bit suprised that you have fallen for it - but maybe the soap takes a hike fast?

    Hmmmm, I'm wondering if this means that I will actually have to start putting money aside for this thing, it is on the pricey side, but I have come to the point where I've tired of adding scents to my collection that aren't really IT. I have enough to keep me from boredom throughout the month (I get bored easily with scents) - now I might want to add something substantial and lasting. We'll just have to see about that.

    ....PaL reminds me of another perfume....what is it....I hope the memory will travel to my speech center at some point throughout the day.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Gojira, I thought that would be the case. The Lady has attar-style overtones of rose and incense (which I know you love), along with that clean-dirt patchouli, but it behaves more like an airy musk perfume, which equals "girly" to me.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Junelady - I know what you mean about the soap-ishness if you just sniff the juice. Rose+musk often equals soap, smell-wise. But Portrait of a Lady is truly a case where "you + the perfume = the fragrance". Wearing it reveals all the facets and delights. 'Cuz you're right, my personal fume tastes rarely include "soapy-clean".

    ReplyDelete
  30. 2 bottles of 50 ml POAL down now, since December. I think its time I tied the knot and got the 100l. What am I scared of.... Strangers stop me in the streets to tell me I smell nice. Shop keepers ask me what Im wearing... and I love it.. its a win win.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Eileen, if you've already plowed through 2 50ml bottles, I'd say you've well beyond tying the knot and now ready for an anniversary party! There's something about PoaL's gauzy sillage that really attracts the appreciative comments.

    ReplyDelete
  32. OK I'm new around here but Nahema was my scent de jour during the 80s. Sounds like POAL and I need to meet.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Hi Katie, its Hessa, I will update you on my friend's trip to London as I asked you for niche perfume recomondation & you suggested few Miller Harris ones Plus portrait of a lady well she didn't get it, she said it was too strong ie, she didn't like it, I'm so disappointed but I think she got me some other perfume as a gift, propably with oud & incence cos that is what shes been wearing lately :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hessa, that is such a tale of woe!! And kind of funny that she bought you something that is to her taste and not yours! But the thing is, Frederic Malle counters offer samples of their line if you ask, and she could've at least brought back a sample of Portrait of a Lady....

      Delete
  34. Hi Katie,
    I really like your review of Portrait of a Lady! It really does the fragrance justice!!! I'm a man and I'm already through my third bottle of Portrait of a Lady!I have 13 other fragrances by Amouage, By Kilian, etc., but I keep spraying Portrait of a Lady!!! Keep up the good work!

    Big hug from Daan

    ReplyDelete
  35. Hi Katie! Just wondering if you are stillas in love with PoaL as you were when it first came out. Would love to hear your thoughts now that you've had her in your life for a few years :) Cheers, April

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi April, I can't believe it's been a few years now since I first plotzed over Portrait of a Lady! The answer is: yes, she still makes me feel luscious. In fact, when I selected my capsule collection to accompany me to London for 9 months last year, it was: POAL, Bruno Acampora Musc, L'Artisan Parfumeur Mon Numero 8, and Amouage Ayoon Al Maha Attar (and supplemented by a small bottle of Clinique Aromatics Elixir I bought there). POAL is still working magic for me.

      Delete
  36. Katie, next time you're in London, I hope to be able to buy you some coffee or maybe afternoon tea (obviously with the scones and all :)) i do have the travel refill of PoaL and loved it when I bought it. Never wore it in public though thinking I couldn't pull it off. Craved and tried it on last night and I don't know what has changed, but it smells like velvety skin now vs how I perceived it to smell on me before, ie too glam. First time I smelled it, I thought it was a perfume to be worn only with fur and stuck to that thought. I now think it might fill the void Fracas left on my signature scent pedestal. I also have and adore BA Musc and love the attars. I have 5 or 6 now I think (Homage, Badr al Badoun, Asrar, Jasmin, Basmah). What I plan to do is buy the body butter of PoaL. Do you layer PoaL or BA Musc with anything? Thank you for the lovely response above :) ps I was at the Geza Schoen event at Liberty a few months back. I think you were supposedly attending the session after us. Missed my perfume rockstar moment with you :( April

    ReplyDelete
  37. Oh and how do you think it compares to Lumiere Noir? I really like LN too, it is quite sexy but in a "demanding attention" kinda way. Quite a few cute guys have commented on it. I don't think it can be my signature scent though, as I prefer smoothness and a symphony of notes rather than experimental jazz-y sharp notes :) April

    ReplyDelete