You could always tell when my mother was gearing up for a night out. It wasn’t the cerise satin jacket with the comedic shoulder-pads, nor the sound of black nylons shuffling from room to room; it was the pertinent fizz of Dior Poison wafting through the banisters and up the stairs.
And even in the haze of childhood, I associated that smell, as it diffused through the evening air, with epitomes of womanhood; self-assurance, poise and a true sense of self. In those moments, my mother wasn’t just my mother – she was a woman. A boldly woven assemblage of tuberose, ylang-ylang and musk, Dior Poison is not one for wallflowers, but then, in 1987, no scents really were. The decade was blitzed with glamorous orientals and proud chypres – that bottle of potion was more than just the final touch to an outfit it was the power-suit itself, instantly commandeering a room, and made the wearer appear larger than life.
Still, as the cyclical nature of fashion dictates, what followed was to juxtapose with the former. After the heady, richly scented days of the Eighties came a procession of gentler, cleaner and more subtle fragrances – scents like CK One and Giorgio Armani Aqua di Gio – which reigned in the Nineties. These gave way to the prolific florals of the early part of this decade, characterised by Chloé and Prada Infusion d’Iris. “The past decade was light, airy and floral,” explains Michael Boadi, founder of Kate Middleton’s favourite perfume house, Illuminum. “But now people want something of the opposite, dark, heavy, exotic and mysterious. People are ready to discover something new.”
Enter the new breed of dark fragrances: a mob of scents so mysteriously powerful and unforgiving, they grab you by the neck and don’t let go. With heady notes of amber, oud, incense and musk, this assemblage of scents is as overtly sexual as this season’s six-inch black leather stiletto without feeling remotely trashy. They are a new language of sexuality, one that screams confidence and control. And they have the power to make you feel the most strident, self-assured version of yourself… once you acclimatise to the new heavier, darker formulas, that is. The undeniable truth in fragrance is: the bolder the scent, the bolder the statement. However, the modern dark scent is less an outward vehicle for status and power (as was the Eighties stance), and more a conduit for the soul of the wearer – a world where the act of dousing one’s self in this new sort of perfume invites women to explore their own dark side – and discover new levels of their identity. It’s self-expression in the purest form, except the focus is on the joy of the wearer, rather than the impression on others. It’s a whisper to oneself, not a shout out to the world.
TO THE DARK SIDE
Painting a picture of a dark and moody Forties private men’s club, Miller Harris has triumphed with a new tobacco- infused scent, La Fumée (left in main picture, £60 for 50ml), which translates as simply, ‘the smoke’. It conjures up images of smouldered embers; smoke, wood and amber, the effect of which is a seriously bold, almost masculine aspect (go light on the application; I fear I almost gassed the entire top deck of a bus, such is its potency and my heavy-handed approach).
But it’s not just the niche brands that are willing to take a bold step inside the world of dark scent, the world’s leading perfumeries have quickly grown wise to the trend. Jo Malone recently announced the move of Dark Amber & Ginger Lily (£80 for 100ml), a smokey blend of black cardamom and kyara wood which was inspired by twilight, from limited edition eau de toilette to its permanent cologne intense range, demonstrating the emerging widespread appeal of dark fragrances in the current marketplace. Likewise, Narciso Rodriguez has reworked his For Her scent to incorporate notes of amber and a deeper heart of musk in For Her In Colour (second from left in main picture, £55.60 for 50ml).
"It's self-expression in its purest form, except the focus is a whisper to oneself, not a shout out to the world."
Following years of playing it safe, fragrance brands have been striking out with brave, game-changing creations. Of the first fragrance from Illamasqua, Freak, co-director Joe le Corre muses, “It’s not for everybody. I always like things that are quite polemic in that department – love and hate are fine with me – I would rather have a few people that love something and a lot of people that hated it than something that everybody thought was OK.” Opening with notes of black davana, a rare and untouchable flower (due to where they grow) and the opium flower it makes for a dark, brooding scent. “Most people know the opium flower from The Wizard Of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door to a field of poppies; it’s dream-like, powerful but beautiful at the same time,” says Freak creator and perfumer, Azzi Glasser.
Still, don’t assume it’s merely a return to Eighties scent power, says fragrance expert and creator of Reckless (centre in main picture, £295 for 50ml), Roja Dove, “dark fragrances are not a revival – more a reinterpretation of style. Those big heady scents aren’t back, but the oriental notes are”. Those sweetly inoffensive florals we found solace in are now falling short in representing the smart, successful and powerful people we now see ourselves as. As a nation, women are more career-minded than ever – we’re securing more top jobs in business and delaying children (the average age for a woman to have her first child is now 29, the oldest it’s ever been) to enable us to navigate our own path. And we now invest more time and money than ever in the pursuit of inner fulfilment.
UNLOCKING YOUR ANIMAL INSTINCTS
So what, in the modern age of perfumery, constitutes a dark fragrance? “It’s all about the base,” says Dove. “The depth, the richness and darkness come without question from the base notes. They give a level of intensity that other materials don’t offer.” Niche perfumer, Ruth Mastenbroek agrees: “A dark fragrance has complexity, depth and mystery. Think sensual animal notes of musks, ambers, exotic woods like patchouli and vetiver. These notes allow us to feel strong.” Quite. Even the most mild-natured often find themselves drawn to the lure of so-called dark fragrances, promising as they do, a sense of forthright command, an unyielding armour from the outside world, and the slipstream to a deeper soul masked within. But there is real science behind the unspeakable attraction to these dark scents, much of which is down to the stirring oud and musk basenotes.
“Oud and musk appeal to our most basic instincts, while conjuring up a fantasy world that is exotic and sensual,” says Mastenbroek. “Animalistic notes – musks and ambers are dark and take one down into the groin of the human body, so to speak.” Don’t balk, the pull towards musk tones lies in simple biology. Musk – a Sanskrit term meaning ‘scrotum testicle’ – is known as a powerful animal note and in modern perfumery can be made up of glandular secretions from the musk deer, plants that emit a similar odour or highly sophisticated lab-created synthetic formulas.
Though tempered by deodorant and cologne, men have been found to naturally emit a musk-like substance that women are particularly sensitive to during ovulation, indicating that there is a biological attraction towards musk, at least in a female to male direction. “Indole is a substance in musk that we produce ourselves, produced at the root of the pubic hair follicle, so the subconscious part of the brain picks this up. Which is why, traditionally, hairy men are seen as more virile,” explains Dove. It’s so powerful that musk was found to be 1,000 times more effective in females.
This goes some way to explaining why, though they can be heavier and more dramatic than the scents we are accustomed to, dark fragrances are magnetising to women.
THE FREEDOM OF REBELLION
Stepping off the beaten track is paramount in the construction of a dark fragrance. Animalistic notes aside, many perfumers are allowing their dark sensibilities to take hold in the lab – incorporating hitherto unseen darker ingredients. Diesel’s Loverdose (second from right in main picture, £35 for 50ml) encased in a violet heart-shaped bottle, pierced by a black dagger has a depth built upon the inclusion of liquorice – a first in fragrance – to the medley of rich, spicy notes, resulting in a richer, more sensual aroma that cleverly belies the brand’s upbeat, playful DNA.
In fact, right now, rebellion is rife in the fragrance world. Niche brand Juliette Has A Gun recently introduced its fourth fragrance, Vengeance Extreme (above), an intense chypre shot through with patchouli and Bulgarian rose. “It’s a dark fragrance and darker to me interprets as a little gothic. It’s sensual, extremely seductive and intense,” reveals its creator, Romano Ricci. “I intend to make a statement with Juliette Has A Gun, I like something to be noticeable and have an effect. If the wearer has an emotion upon wearing one of my scents, that’s what makes me happy. What makes me unhappy is if they are indifferent.”
Encased in an opaque black ribboned bottle, everything about this fragrance alludes to the deeper, more brooding part of our personality. Ricci had a specific type of woman in mind when creating the fragrance: “I was inspired by an impulsive and passionate woman with numerous sides to her sense of extremity, from seduction, madness and provocation to vengeance.”
"Men have been found to naturally emit a musk-like substance that women are biologically attracted to."
Wordplay has always played a major part in furnishing the fantasy of scent, either in advertising or on the bottle, only now, in place of ideals of cotton- fresh laundry, the words associated with dark fragrances explore our deeper side, there’s drama, danger and mystery. Taking this approach further, are the makers of Blood Concept (previous page), a collection of four unisex fragrances created for and named after blood types, featuring a red pipette and chrome bottle, mimicking a sort of surgical blood transfusion. For instance, those with type O can look forward to a visceral and intense concoction, with base notes of cedarwood and leather, resulting in a ‘carnal and primitive’ scent.
Still, it’d be naive to explore the new world of dark fragrances without acknowledging the unyielding influence of the dark arts in social culture. Blame it on True Blood, the hit HBO series that has 2 million viewers in the UK alone (read our interview with the show's star, Anna Paquin, here) and has a global pull so powerful, it recently franchised into a make-up line. Or, perhaps it’s vampire saga Twilight, which has grossed over £1 billion at the box office worldwide. Unlocking your dark side has become a global cultural phenomenon: these days even the most professional career women have a touch of goth lurking inside, which has no doubt been there all along, it’s just now, we’re being encouraged to unleash it. Even the world of cosmetic enhancement hasn’t evaded the trend; with vampire therapy – a treatment which involves injecting the skin to remove blood platelets and reinjecting them back into the face to kick-start the skin’s repair process. Thus circling back to the question of personal expression – and how we see ourselves .
For centuries, scent has a played a key part in communicating the subtle nuances of identity. There’s a safety in pushing the fragrance boundaries that isn’t available elsewhere. There’s no worry that you won’t fit into this season’s high-waisted flares, no concern that the new bold brow will make you look a little too mannish, scent allows us to play with our own identity without fear. Scent is truly the most effective means in communicating one’s identity, in a way that is so under the radar, the wearer and those around her, are blinded to its powers.
“When I was 18, I discovered Mitsouko by Guerlain,” remembers Mastenbroek. “I will never forget the way it made me feel – like I was embracing womanhood. When a woman chooses a fragrance for an occasion it allows her to express those facets of her personality that she wants to accentuate. There’s a magic in that: the fragrance chooses its wearer.”
Scent plays on the fact that the human senses are all inextricably linked, sight goes with sound, sound goes with smell and so forth. Which is why, a dark fragrance is much more than a heavier scent or a gothic-looking bottle, it’s a composite entity of the underworld of our personality; the thoughts we daren’t think, the words we seldom utter, the actions we dream of taking. There’s no hiding from it, these scents are intended to cause a stir, they won’t lurk in the shadows. On the contrary, they create a new shadow on which to paint yourself into. Dark fragrances are, in essence, unforgettable mini experiences; they linger with you, wafting through the evening air making scent memories of your own.
Words: Joanna McGarry. Photography: Graeme Montgomery