In hindsight this turned out to be not a bad thing. It certainly tightened up my focus. I got my act together, got a student loan, enrolled for freshman year in a cheap, local college, and transferred the next year (with a partial scholarship and more loans) to a better college further away. I realized I could survive without my parents´ financial support – and, with the exception of the occasional $20 my dad slipped into a letter to me, I did. I worked a variety of jobs, carried a full course load and studied hard, determined to graduate as quickly as possible. Even the money part wasn´t so bad, in that most of my friends were broke.
Somewhere in my senior year, when I was fully into my cropped-hair, pierced-nose, thrift store existence, I wandered into a boutique on the town´s main street. I never went in there because it was clear to everyone, including me, that I didn´t have dime to spend on luxuries. But on the counter sat a bottle of Niki de Saint Phalle. I´ve spent some time recently, in my perfume reminiscences, trying to sort out what was so alluring about it. First off, the smell was unlike anything I´d smelled at the student-friendly blend-your-own-essential-oils joint down the street. Second …. I wanted to be that perfume. It looked dangerous and seductive and alluring, with those bright, entwined snakes, but it also looked sophisticated and foreign and classy. In other words, it was a perfect summation of everything I wasn´t – and several things that, on some level, I wanted to be.
Because the truth was, I still felt cheated. I´d sucked it up and done my thing, but a part of me wanted to know why I wasn´t wearing plaid skirts at William and Mary, going to keggers, driving my own car and throwing away money on college-girl crap like cute spring shoes and eyeshadow. What happened to that girl, anyway? Could I ever have filled those Pappagallo flats? I looked at that bottle, and I felt a little sad, because a fug of loserdom had settled on me like a dark cloud. Being poor sucks, even when you´re 20 and can pretend it´s just adding to your street credibility.
I bought that bottle. I probably spent the money I´d budgeted for an entire month of laundry and food, and I wasn´t the sort of person who did impulsive things like that. I wore it a little, but really, it wasn´t me. I have no idea what happened to the bottle. I bet I haven´t smelled it in 20 years.
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002) was an artist, born in France and raised in the U.S., who was on the cover of Life Magazine as a model at 16 and eloped at 18. As an artist she was known first for her “shooting paintings,” which were made by shooting bullets into the canvas, followed by a period when she became interested in archetypal female figures (“nanas”), which were often made of papier-mache. Ultimately she became known for her oversized, rather whimsical sculptures; the snakes adorning her perfume flacon give you an idea of the bright, primitive style of her work. Her piece de resistance was apparently the fabulously wack Tarot Garden, a sculpture garden in Tuscany, which I am now dying to see. (Has anyone been there?) The perfume was released in 1982 and the proceeds were to help finance the garden, which was almost 20 years in construction, beginning in 1979 and opening (finally) in 1998. According to one source, the artist lived in one of the sculptures, The Empress, for part of that time.
I tracked some of this fragrance down recently. Notes: Peach, Mugwort, Bergamot, Mint, Jasmine, Rose, Clove, Iris, Ylang-Ylang, Cedar, Patchouli, Oakmoss, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Amber, Musk. Those notes (to which I paid zero attention when ordering) may give you a hint of my initial impression: could I possibly have worn this? The fragrance opens on a note I can only describe as Difficult; it is pungent and a little bitter, and following close behind are the most masculine elements of the fragrance – between the moss, vetiver and sandalwood, you might almost be wearing a men´s fragrance. There is just enough of a hint of florals to give you the general idea it´s a woman´s fragrance, but not so much that you´d call it floral. Oh, well. Being me, I just soaked a ton more on my arm, figuring I might as well get The Full Effect, then shrugged and got busy with something else.
After half an hour or so, that rare thing happened: I began to be dimly aware, while paying bills, that something smelled wonderful, and it was me. The florals start to unfold, and the entire experience becomes a lot more seductive. This second phase is quite long lasting, and it is lovely – a warm, inviting blend of jasmine, ylang, clove and sweetish musk that smell tender and enveloping after the assertive opening. The difference between the opening and the drydown in this fragrance is one of the widest I have ever smelled, and part of what makes it so interesting.
But is it “me?” I´m not so sure. Objectively, it smells beautiful. Subjectively, for the first half of the trip it´s got a certain I-Please-Myself aloofness that doesn´t quite fit me. It´s a bit like Dior – I adore several of their fragrances, but oddly, the ones I like most seem the least … plausible on me. Like I borrowed someone else´s dress, and it fits perfectly, but still I feel faintly ridiculous. That´s one of the interesting quirks of perfume love, I suppose.
I am now going to institute one of our silly perfume reindeer games, which I´m calling This Smells Like You. I have sent a decant of this to Colombina of Perfume-Smellin´ Things, because I think she´ll really like it – actually, this game was born because I thought of her right away, and each subsequent time I smelled it. I hate invoking the sacred name of Dior where she´s involved, and it doesn´t smell like Dior, but to me it has the same type of grown-up, exotic, somewhat imperious feeling. Plus I think the opening, which I find kind of fierce, might work better with her skin chemistry. I´ve checked her archives and can´t find a reference to it. I have invited her to blog about it (until today she didn´t know what it was), give her impressions, and then tell me how right or wrong I was about her liking it. Then Colombina will pick a fragrance to send to another perfume blogger (not me) that she thinks that person would like. Etc. Let´s see what happens.
Final Note: the concentration I blogged about is the EDT. There is no EDP, to the best of my knowledge. I´d love to try the parfum (pictured above, which is not the bottle I owned), because I wonder if it would be a smoother ride, but the flacons are expensive ($175 – $250 and up on eBay and elsewhere, and coveted by bottle collectors). Has anyone tried the parfum? If so, please comment.
images: Niki de Saint Phalle, ladifference.fr; bottle image swiped from hapless eBayer, with apologies, because I could not find a single decent image elsewhere; sculpture garden, oneroom.org