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Chandler Burr's Ten Favorite Fragrances

You have to, I think, start out understanding that there is no such thing as a "masculine" or "feminine" fragrance. Luca Turin once said to me that masculine perfumery is (very unfortunately for it) defined negatively, which is to say by what you "can't" put in it, flowers, bright notes, etc. And the marketers straightjacket feminine fragrances, simply in the opposite direction. Don't listen to them. Luca has always worn whatever he's liked, as have I. So the following list of the ten fragrances I love most (in no particular order, I should add) has a mix of masculines and feminines, and feel free to wear any or all of them whenever you like.

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On doit, je pense, commencer par comprendre que le parfum "masculin" et "féminin" n'existe pas. Luca Turin m'a dit un jour que la parfumerie masculine est (malheureusement pour elle) definie par le négatif, c'est a dire: "Voici tout ce vous ne pouvez pas mettre dans un masculin" (des fleurs, des notes claires, etc). Et les marketers mettent les même contraints sur les parfums féminins, simplement dans l'autre sens. Ne les écoutez pas. Luca a toujours porté tout ce qu'il a voulu porter, et moi aussi, et donc la liste suivante de mes 10 parfums préférés (l'ordre n'a pas vraiment d'importance) est une mixture de masculins et de féminins, et vous devez vous sentir absolument libre de les porter tous, comme et quand vous voulez.

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1) Angel by Thierry Mugler

Marketed as a feminine, in reality as unique as a person, this utterly marvelous scent is, to quote Luca, "brilliant, at once edible (chocolate) and refreshingly toxic (caspirene, coumarin).”  Created by the legendary perfumeur Yves de Chiris (his perfumeur great, great-grandfather was a character in Patrick Susskind's novel "Perfume"), Angel doesn't even bother to pretend to pay lip service to categories. Don't let its initial personality startle you; wearing it is like having a conversation, because this thing will talk to you for hours on various subjects, sometimes chocolate/ cinnamon, sometimes fresh ginger and spices in cream, and sometimes the heady, symphonic interior of the Greenwich Village flower shop (irises, lilies, roses, their cut stems and leaves) where Meryl Streep bought bouquets in "The Hours" mixed in with the scent of the concrete and car exhaust of the New York street that enters with every customer. I have dined in fine restaurants with Angel on, and it was the most delicious thing the entire evening. Wear it and see.

2) Bigarade created by the perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena and En Passant, by Olivia Giacobetti for Frédéric Malle/ Editions de Parfums

I only put these two together because they were both created for Frédéric Malle's uniquely strange and impossible-to-find perfume outfit, which produces fragrances made like no others, rather expensive, and appallingly good. Malle got an idea in his head, went to individual great perfumers, and offered a deal: Make me a perfume. Your ideal perfume. Put whatever the hell you want in it, the most expensive, fabulous stuff around. Create it exactly as you think it should be. And I'll bottle and sell it. In the little Malle boutique at Barneys which is the only place in New York City you can smell these things, they make a big deal out of their central metaphor, that these perfumes are written by individual authors given full authorial integrity and simply published by Malle, who may edit a bit here and there but basically just puts out the work. (It's why it's called "Editions de Parfums," which is also the web site: www.editionsdeparfums.com; a "maison d'edition" in French is a publishing house.)

Weird concept. The result is stupendous. All eleven fragrances in the current lineup range from very good to truly superb; two strike me as outrageously superb. Luca once called something chic, and I asked him why, or rather what "chic" was exactly. He sighed and said despairingly, "Chic is the most impossible thing to define." He thought about it. "Luxury is a humorless thing, largely. Chic is all about humor. Which means chic is about intelligence. And there has to be oddness— most luxury is conformist, and chic cannot be. Chic must be polite, but within that it can be as weird as it wants." Both Bigarade and En Passant, it seems to me, incarnate chic, though they are utterly different. The best way to describe Bigarade is to say, first, that it is a vast smell. And second, that it smells like a human being in the summer in a complex weather system; whoever this person is, we can smell them, they're showered but they have a smell all the same, and the lovely, intricate smells of summer are all around and clinging to their skin, and also it seems to have just rained because there's the scent of rainwater on pavement and perhaps a bit of ozone, plus some flower petals and grass that got washed into the puddle they're stepping in. As for En Passant, I'm told by Malle's people that it was born in the instant that Giacobetti somewhere on a street in her native Italy passed a bakery and a florist and got pastry, flowers, and street all at once. I'm willing to believe that, because the scent is so fascinating, but what this woman has crafted isn't just a smell; the damn thing transports you with loveliness. I would say that it's magic, but I know it's simply molecules. Still, your retinas shrink from the pure pleasure of this scent. Both are so unusual you don't know how to respond at first. You've never smelled anything like them.

3) Vera Wang by Vera Wang

There are some fragrances that are good in any circumstances and some that lend themselves to certain times and places. Wearing anything Guerlain to play tennis would be weird (while wearing Tommy Girl to play tennis would be perfect). It depends on what the perfume evokes and how you want to use it. Vera Wang has created a fragrance that is simply elegance in a bottle. Smelling it is like watching a beautiful woman in an evening gown walk leisurely past and give you a radiant smile. Since this is a self-assured quite American elegance, it's relaxed, and you could use it at the office if you wanted. But I'd hold it in reserve for evening. You smell this, you stand up a little straighter, your eyes a little brighter in the smooth air, the jazz combo sound flowing a little richer. Gorgeous.

4) Quartz by Molyneux

When I was seventeen, I used to make pocket money by selling perfumes at a little French perfumery in Georgetown, in Washington DC where I grew up. One of the scents I loved was Quartz, which I bought (and still buy) for my mom. This is not grandiose perfumery; Quartz is a fragrance of simple loveliness and grace marked by a quality of absolute clarity. If you like those things, you will like Quartz. Its heart is orange blossom (I'm told), Molyneux markets it as a feminine, and it is a classic female fragrance. And I can tell you that a football player jock high school roommate of mine sprayed some on one morning as a joke (this was at boarding school) and that afternoon hunted me down and, gripping my arm, said, "Hey, where can I get this shit?" In our AP English class alone he'd had five girls murmur into his ear as they leaned in to smell his muscular neck. Quartz.

5) Hanae Mori for Men by Hanae Mori

What amazes about Hanae Mori's creation is that it manages to be at once elegant, enticing, understated, and (crucially) just ever so slightly odd (the citrus, which you only get sometimes). This is not a showy fragrance. It is calm and classic and subtle, a scent that both bathes you in most soothing of limes and cloaks you in the most tasteful charcoal suit you've ever worn. Hanae Mori for Men will always be correct. It will always "work." It's arguably a perfect fragrance. I would say that it is also arguably much better on women than on men, but I don't believe that; it's for anyone who appreciates its superb qualities.

6) Paris by Yves Saint Laurent

Someone once said to me that of all the perfumes they know, the perfume brief in which YSL described to the perfumer what they hoped to get out of Paris must have been the shortest brief ever written: "Make us the most gorgeous rose perfume in the world, over and out." In my view, they've done it. Paris is a gigantically wonderful rose. In fact, what I like about it is that it is not anything else. It pretty much dispenses with top notes and bottom notes. It simply explodes onto the scene and envelopes you, you say "Whoa!", and it just starts radiating unabashed luxury. It has, to my mind, the most class in the YSL lineup. And it stakes out another position too: Contrast Paris to, for example, YSL's Baby Doll; almost strange that YSL would decide to market a perfume that is essentially a millimeter away from Fiorucci's super-sweet olfactory joke (and I like Baby Doll, but it is, in part, with it's super-pinkness, meant to make you laugh). Clearly the YSL people simply wanted to give us two terrific characters playing two utterly different roles. Baby Doll defines its delightful Betty Boop territory. And Paris reigns over the perfume terrain of powerful, bold, glorious, heady, rosy grandeur.

7) The Dreamer by Versace

After all those goddamn, tired out, hairy chested, cliché macho, standardized masculine fragrances from Giorgio Armani, you have to wonder: Who the hell at Versace was the genius who came up with The Dreamer? First, this is so not your father's aftershave that it smells like it fell to earth from the strange, powdery stellar globulous pictured on its box. Like Angel, The Dreamer startles you. Smell Eau Sauvage, and you think, "Oh, men's cologne." (Ho hum.) You smell this thing, and not only do you not think men's cologne (because you can't possibly), you think "What the hell is it?!" "It" is, first, absolutely mouthwatering. It is walking through a French pastry shop next to a spice market in southern Thailand. Then there's ice cream, gun powder, fruit candy, hot cocoa, marshmallows, blood orange peel, and probably some DDT. It is the most mesmeric fragrance I know.

8) Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel

I offended a perfumer in Paris by describing Coco Mademoiselle. What I said was that Chanel had clearly decided to create a perfume that American teenage girls would immediately want. His eyebrows arched; "Well, it's a bit more than that," he said. Yes, I agree. It was an entirely forehand compliment: As with Ralph by Ralph Lauren, which was obviously created for the same purpose, Coco Mademoiselle is both an entry level Chanel fragrance and a very smart marketing decision, and there's nothing wrong with either, at all. God knows Nos 19 and 22 can be tough to appreciate immediately. If you like nice scents, you like this perfume, instantly. Period, end of discussion. It is lovely, flowery, a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old in a summer dress, of excellent quality so the fragrance lasts, and, behind the seeming sweet simplicity, something much more compelling than might at first appear. That something is simply that when you come across someone wearing it, you want to lean closer to them.

9) Happy for Men by Clinique

A rare example of the marketing and creative people working together, Happy for Men is exactly what it says it is. This is (let's be clear) a feminine fragrance being sold to men, and every man, and lots of women, should own it. Brush your teeth Happy, work Happy, go to the barbeque Happy; a guy who smells like this is sunshine and cool, summer beach and intelligence, snowboarding and sexiness. I'd describe the scent, but nah, track it down and try it. Damn this stuff is nice.

10) Chanel No 5 by Chanel

Chanel No 5 hits you like a bank of white-hot searchlights washing the powdered stars at a movie premier in Cannes on a dry summer night. If you haven't smelled it in a while, do so again. It's great to bathe in that light. (I will admit that I don't wear it; it's the only feminine fragrance I don't wear, and only because it is just too well known. But sometimes I sneak some on a forearm.)

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Photo credit: Curtis Kelley