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.