Wearing Ylang 49 has reminded me of a claim several perfumers have made about fragrance critics: apparently our noses are stuck in the past. According to the likes of Jean-Claude Ellena, Francis Kurkdjian and Thierry Wasser, amongst others, we judge current releases in terms of how closely they adhere to the styles and sensibilities of yesteryear. If my initial response to Frank Voelkl's latest creation for Le Labo is anything to go by, then they certainly have a point. During my first wearing of the scent, I filled my notebook with references to perfumes from previous decades, as well as terms such as "old school", "classical" and "bygone era". But it would be too simplistic - and inaccurate - to state that I admire this perfume purely because it speaks a language many modern creations appear to have forgotten. Because the truth is that although Ylang 49's soul seems to have been transported from a time when platform shoes and bell bottoms danced the night away beneath sparkling disco balls, its brain is very much a product of the 21st century.
Let's deal with the past first: this stuff is a bona fide floral chypre, as elegant and complex as the finest examples of the genre. Putting aside notes, accords and ingredients for a moment, if there's one thing that characterises a chypre, it's a feline disposition. You know the joke about cats declaring they have staff, not owners? That's precisely the sort of attitude I've always picked up from chypres. They're individualistic, inscrutable and quietly independent, but treat them well and they'll nuzzle up to you with a warmth that makes you forgive the times when they prefer to remain aloof. It's this grown-up, multi-faceted loveability that runs all the way through Ylang 49. Just when its full-bodied richness threatens to dominate and take over your own personality, it appears to quieten down and reassure you that it is, in fact, working with you rather than against you.
How has this commendable effect been achieved? Well, I suppose the best person to ask would be Mr Voelkl himself, but as he isn't available, I'd venture to say that it's the result of combining peppery, powdery, rosy elements with highly authoritative, hefty woods. The former (reminiscent of Aromatics Elixir's rosy-leather feel) leap off your body with blithe abandon, whereas the latter (think: the plummy booziness of Opium) appear to latch on to every single pore on your skin. Needless to say, in proper chypre style, there's a mossy facet too, but it's much closer to the dryness of Chanel's Pour Monsieur than the more boudoir-centred inflection of Mitsouko or the original Femme.
However, this isn't mere pastiche. As I said at the beginning, Voelkl hasn't focussed exclusively on looking back, so what of the present? I'd suggest the factor which stops this composition from remaining locked in 'vintage' territory is what could be called 'savouriness', for want of a better term. Located somewhere at the intersection of stewed celery stalks (not as unappealing as it sounds!), seaweed washed up on a sun-baked shore and salted caramel, it conveys an androgynous vibe which spells modernity. If you have access to L'Artisan Parfumeur's Dzongkha and The Different Company's Sel De Vetiver, dig them out and you'll get a better sense of what I mean. Both those perfumes are centred around ancient, commonly-used materials and yet they present them in allusive, non-gender-specific ways in keeping with the sexual politics of the 21st century.
But enough of this geekery. The simple fact is that Ylang 49 is a joy. Although, strictly speaking, it isn't an ylang ylang perfume (there is a suggestion of the material's banana edge here, but the names chosen by Le Labo should never be taken too literally) it more than makes up for the inaccuracy of its moniker by engaging its wearer in an enthralling conversation which throws up genuine surprises and goes off on delightful, unexpected tangents. Whether it makes you think of bell bottoms, disco balls or even a moon party hosted by Ziggy Stardust doesn't really matter. Shut your eyes, listen to its satisfied purr and delight in the fact that modern perfumery is still more than capable of giving us tremendous pleasure.
A quick thought on what Le Labo are calling Ylang 49's imperfect twin: Lys 41 composed by Daphné Bugey. Although it isn't as gripping as Voelkl's creation, Lys deserves praise too, mainly for the ease with which it appears to conjure a bouquet of lilies and tuberoses. At the risk of making one comparison too many in this post, I'll say that it feels very much like a combination of Frederic Malle's Lys Méditerranée and Carnal Flower (the florals are imbued with the same green, coconuty freshness) placed upon the vanilla-musk base of Hermès' Vanille Galante or Guerlain's Lys Soleia. There's a sweet orange facet too which keeps the whole rooted in 'summer orchard' mode. Very attractive indeed.
[Reviews based on samples of extrait provided by Le Labo in 2013. Both these scents appear to have been a hit on the blogosphere: for more reviews of them, please visit Now Smell This, The Non-Blonde and Grain De Musc.]