This is an amazing review of a thing, a smell. What is nice, really, is that it’s like art criticism or, I guess reportage, in that it’s about something you probably don’t have access to. (No Smellify playlists.) And it’s still 100% evocative and canny.
One seemingly nonsensical criterion, among people who are new to reading perfume reviews, is “originality.” After all, something can be very original without being at all good; sometimes, no-one has tried to bottle a particular combination of notes before (let’s say, just for the sake of quoting my nightmares, mimosa, cumin and cucumber) simply because that particular combination of notes smells terrible. Likewise, something can be completely unoriginal without sacrificing a bit of visceral appeal: People have been trying to make themselves smell like lavender for centuries, most of the earliest colognes in history smelled like lavender, and to this day, you can get a wearable and/or room-diffusable $8.99 bottle of lavender essential oil from every health store in the world, helpfully labeled “relaxing,” because some basic part of the human brain has always wanted everything to smell like lavender, and it always will.
So the idea of “originality” seems kind of pointless. On its surface, it appeals only to people who are suckers for “exclusivity” and enjoy the popular delusion that no-one else smells like they do (which, if something is good enough and in even moderately wide release, is just not going to happen; besides, if you want to smell different and inventive these days, you could just buy an exclusive niche scent I like to call “literally anything other than Mark Jacobs’ Daisy”) or else people who have just smelled too much of this stuff and have become so jaded that they need a little perversion to get it up, like the perfume equivalent of Hedonism Bot or bored ’70s wife-swappers.
Here’s the thing, though: Just as with anything else, perfume “weird,” if it’s done right, can be amazing. It helps if you realize that Good Weird and Bad Weird are different, clearly perceptible things. Bad Weird, like Thierry Mugler’s Womanity, tends to smell like somebody failed at something. You can see where they’re going, but (a) they didn’t quite get there, and (b) you have no idea why they were headed there in the first place. Good Weird is a different animal. You never knew something could smell like Good Weird, and you never knew that you wanted to smell like Good Weird, but once you’ve smelled it, it seems simple, and obvious, and instantly appealing. If something like Womanity is like watching The Room (but not really, because it lacks even that level of anti-appeal; its overly approachable “sporty” style and over-reliance on CGI puts it squarely in the bizarre-yet-boring Avatar: The Last Airbender category) then Good Weird can be like Pulp Fiction in 1994. It was strange, and it didn’t work like other movies on a structural or aesthetic level, but everyone still liked it, because all that oddness still was put together in a way that worked right out of the box.
Case in point: Bulgari Black. It’s available at every department store, Sephora, and skeezy discount fragrance outlet, it’s been well-reviewed to the point that calling it “great” makes you sound boring, and I have variously read it described as:
(a) The smell of a BDSM sex shop, full of leather harnesses and rubber adult novelty items,
(b) The smell of burning tires, and
(c) A classic, powdery-vanilla comfort scent.
All three of these assessments are accurate. But they don’t capture the appeal. Just as with Bad-Weird Womanity, a complete list of notes for Black is hard to find. There is a long, seemingly complete list out there, which fills in some gaps and solves some mysteries. But there is also a very, very short list, and that short list is exactly what it smells like: Lapsang Souchong tea, vanilla, and rubber.