Les Nez Manoumalia : Perfume Review

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The first time I tried Manoumalia, a perfume from the niche fragrance house Les Nez, I was so repulsed by its heavy sweetness that I immediately ran to scrub it off my skin. The same thing happened when I tentatively approached it again. How could anyone enjoy something that smells like rotting fruit and wilting flowers, I wondered? But in spite of myself I kept my sample around and from time to time I would pick it up and sniff the cap until one day it dawned on me that Manoumalia isn’t so much a pleasant scent as a whole sensory experience. It smells so realistically of the tropics that wearing it is like stepping off the plane into the dark Indian night. It’s a sensory rollercoaster.

I discovered later that Manoumalia was created by perfumer Sandrine Videault who lived on the island of Wallis in the South Pacific. Her heady blend of frangipani, ylang-ylang and amber was her tribute to the island—to the scents of women’s perfumed skin, their flower garlands and beauty preparations. I’ve never been to Polynesia, but I’m familiar with the smells of Indian tropics, where the odors of human existence underpin the blooming tropical exuberance. The sun may be generous and lavish, but it also means decay and death, which is what you can smell in the delicate freshness of jasmine blossoms and taste in the sugary richness of mangoes.

I could never imagine finding this experience in a perfume bottle, and even when I discovered it through Manoumalia, I wasn’t convinced I could pull it off. Taken out of its tropical context, Manoumalia was a shock, but eventually it became the fragrance to which I turned to forget the winter, the grey skies and the routine of my weekdays. I usually put a drop on my wrist after my evening bath and curl up in bed with a book.

As I turn the pages, the perfume blooms on my skin and invariably distracts me from my reading. At first, Manoumalia teases me with heady white flowers which combine creamy frangipani and ylang ylang with the fruity sweetness of jasmine. The pungent warmth—is it someone’s sun warmed skin, or perhaps, the rotting papaya peels?—appears stealthily and suddenly I don’t just smell the tropics; I feel their balmy warmth around me.

Manoumalia is a complex fragrance, and it takes time for it to develop. Along the way it stops by the temples where the smells of wilting marigold garlands are joined by the smoky perfume of sandalwood incense. Manoumalia’s hints of cumin and nutmeg take you into the street stalls where women blend spices for fiery chutneys. The darkness of amber and woods lands you in the bridal chamber, where the blushing bride in red silks is being anointed with turmeric and sandalwood paste. Manoumalia finishes its story on an opulent musk, which would have been creamy and tender, if it weren’t for its dense chocolate-like bitterness.

Is it a stunning perfume? Yes, without any doubt. But it’s challenging to wear, it lasts for ages and takes over the whole room with its rich, heavy trail. I don’t approach Manoumalia unless I’m prepared for its whirlwind journey. I hardly ever wear it in public, preferring to save it for moments of solitude. It’s a dazzling sensory ride, but it can easily become overwhelming. For those who like their florals raunchy and naughty, however, it’s a must try.

Les Nez Manoumalia includes notes of fragrea (tropical flower), vetiver, tiare, ylang ylang, amber, and sandalwood. Available directly from lesnez.com as well as Luckyscent.

Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

Sample: my own acquisition

Image: Flower garlands (white jasmine and orange kanakambaramby mckaysavage, via flickr.com, some rights reserved. Women in South India wear such lovely garlands in their hair on daily basis, a wonderful custom.

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39 Comments

  • grain de musc: As you know, I’ve written about Manoumalia and its reception in my book — you might remember the violent reactions it elicited on the Perfume Posse…
    I’ve recently seen a documentary about Manoumalia (not yet distributed). During a sequence, Sandrine Videault has Wallisian women test it — both the ladies who taught her traditional Wallisian blends and other women in a market. It’s amazing to see the grin on their faces!
    I’ve also had a very surprising experience with it during one of my London perfume appreciation courses. One of the people there was a 60 year-old biochemist from South India. He had tears in his eyes when he smelled Manoumalia: he said he’d been looking for such a perfume all his life.
    What I find interesting in this is that clearly this fragrance draws on non-Western olfactory codes despite its French structure. To me this is a possible way forward for creative perfumery. April 30, 2012 at 7:19am Reply

    • Victoria: D, at your urging I went to Perfume Posse and found the link:
      http://perfumeposse.com/2010/07/13/lesnez-manoumalia/
      I can’t believe that I’ve missed this review by March! I completely understand what she’s talking about. There is something very disconcerting about this perfume, but it’s also the same feeling that I’ve experienced when I went to India for the first time. When I walked out of the airport building in Delhi and stepped into the hot, humid evening air, for a second I wanted to run back to the air conditioned, relatively scent free comfort of the terminal. The smell was like a material presence–something burning, human odors, mango peels, night blooming flowers that had such a narcotic, heady scent I felt dizzy. Whenever I return I still brace myself for the first moment I meet the “smell”. Over time it becomes an integral part of my experience, and I start to miss it when I come back. Ah, Manoumalia isn’t a perfume I wear to smell good, that’s for sure. It’s really an experience, and I applaud Les Nez and Videault for having guts to make it.

      Thank you for mentioning the film as well. I’m going to be on the lookout for it. Do you know if they have plans to launch it anytime soon? April 30, 2012 at 10:05am Reply

      • grain de musc: I don’t think the documentary has been sold to any channel yet. I imagine it’ll be on one of the stations dedicated to French overseas territories, or perhaps on France 5. I saw a preview copy.

        You know, oddly, I didn’t have that reaction at all to Manoumalia. What troubled me most at the time is that it seemed to exist in different spaces — the sandalwood and vetiver only came back to me when I caught whiffs of my sillage in the wind. April 30, 2012 at 10:39am Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, good, I would love to see it. There aren’t too many scent related documentaries, although Robin just posted about a perfume reality show!

          I would love to smell Manoumalia with my Indian friends. The story of your student is so touching. If I ever smelled my grandmother’s house in a perfume bottle, I bet I would break down in tears, especially since I miss her so much. April 30, 2012 at 10:46am Reply

    • Jenna: Denyse, I commented before that we’re now reading your book with my book club buddies. As I read Victoria’s review of Manoumalia, I went back to your novel and re-read the passage. Can’t wait for my sample to arrive! My sister lives in the US, I get my Luckyscent perfume orders shipped to her. But sometimes it takes her a while to ship them to me. What’s a girl to do but wait! 🙂 April 30, 2012 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Jenna: The perfume sounds strange but you’ve made me curious enough to order a sample from Luckyscent.
    I would love to wear flowers in my hair like those ladies, but at my age people might think “mutton dressed as lamb.” LOL! April 30, 2012 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 In India, everyone wears them, from school girls on their way to school to elderly women cooking the street food. I remember seeing a woman who was helping at the road construction site by carrying baskets filled with bricks and soil on her head–a hard and dirty work. She was wearing a bright pink sari and a string of jasmine in her hair. Nomatter what our situation is, women want to be beautiful, and it was a touching reminder.

      Please let me know what you think of Manoumalia, Jenna! It’s strange for sure, but it’s also special and memorable. That alone is worth the time to try it. April 30, 2012 at 10:51am Reply

      • Jenna: That’s a moving story. I want to visit India someday. April 30, 2012 at 1:01pm Reply

        • Victoria: India is a special place–a true sensory kaleidoscope. Also, visiting there is a humbling experience like no other. April 30, 2012 at 1:17pm Reply

  • Alyssa: I agree with all of this! But now I am a little disappointed in myself for not loving it. 😉 April 30, 2012 at 11:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Don’t be disappointed! It would be so dull if all of us loved the same thing, and we would be broke if we loved everything that came our way.

      But I would love to know what exactly you disliked about it. April 30, 2012 at 12:12pm Reply

      • Alyssa: I simply cannot get past the rotting swamp. It affects me viscerally. I’ve never given my sample away though, and every now and then I try again. Because I like the *idea* of a gorgeous rotting swamp. But my nose and my gut aren’t having it. April 30, 2012 at 3:44pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, yes, I see why the rotting swamp would stop you in your tracks. 🙂 I especially love that you actually want the gorgeous rotting swamp. Trying to think of other ideas for you… Maybe, Guerlain Mahora (Mayotte)? April 30, 2012 at 4:20pm Reply

          • Alyssa: Oh that’s funny! I haven’t worn Mahora/Mayotte in a long time (same thing, right?) but I loved it when I first started sniffing and was so puzzled by the way everyone complained about its overwhelming sillage–and then Luca’s excoriating review. It just seemed lovely and ladylike to me. I should dig it out. I love the bottle. April 30, 2012 at 4:43pm Reply

            • Alyssa: In fact, I now recall that I wore Mahora to a luncheon with my mother and a bunch of her friends because I thought of it as a reserved perfume that wouldn’t offend. LOL! April 30, 2012 at 4:46pm Reply

              • Victoria: LOL! This reminds me how I used to wear Tresor thinking that it was a light fragrance. Can you think of another sillage monster comparable to Tresor? It takes over the whole room.

                I don’t think that Mahora was as bad as LT’s review, but then again, my appetite for big white florals is pretty much insatiable. 🙂 April 30, 2012 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Grusheczka: Hi! What a great post. This fragrance has had me under its spell since the first time I tried it. It’s not beautiful, it’s a little heavy and maybe a bit too pungent (for many), but something about it kept drawing me back. There’s just not much out there that smells of ripeness quite in the way this does, and also pulls it off. Great fragrance that deserves more attention. April 30, 2012 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Mmm, I agree–that smell of ripeness is something that is definitely very polarizing. My husband hates this perfume, although he puts it very diplomatically, “it’s very strong.” But by the look on his face, I can see that he isn’t a fan. I know him well.

      Glad to hear that Manoumalia has other fans though! April 30, 2012 at 2:16pm Reply

    • marsi: V’s review and your description are so tempting! April 30, 2012 at 3:22pm Reply

  • solmarea: Adore the description. Journey through scent of a land, colours & story richness.
    { Only just ordering a sample of this the other day; fascinated to try it now.} April 30, 2012 at 1:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you enjoy it! There is something so raunchy and opulent in Manoumalia that it both attracts and repulses me. But I wore it last night and enjoyed it. It fitted well with a Bollywood movie I was watching! April 30, 2012 at 2:22pm Reply

  • renee: For me,India was not at all love at first sight!It took me many trips to finally see the beauty that Mircea Eliade,a very dear author of mine,describes in its books.And,for me,Manoumalia smells just like India,like a garland of tropical flowers on Gange’s strand. April 30, 2012 at 2:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a beautiful, romantic description, Renee! Not for me either. My first visit was also during the hottest time of the year, and I was “lucky” to catch the first few pre-monsoon days when it’s hot and dreadfully humid. Everything was such a shock to me. But little by little it got under my skin, and I’ve been anticipating each return with pleasure. India ended up giving me back so much. April 30, 2012 at 2:26pm Reply

  • maggiecat: Oh dear. Another lemming created. Your lovely review made me think about my first visit to Hawai’i, where the air is so fragrant I hardly even felt the need to wear perfume. The scents I bought there were indeed a perfect antitdote to winter blahs, and a pwoerful memory of a special place and time. Given that I probably won’t be visiting Inida anytime soon, this scent will have to do. April 30, 2012 at 3:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Are there any special local brands in Hawai’i? I’m so curious about the perfumes you bought there.

      I’m in the same boat–can’t imagine when my next trip to India might be, so Manoumalia is the closest thing to being there. April 30, 2012 at 3:18pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Manoumalia to me was love at second sniff. I only have a sample that I have nearly drained, and am saving for a bottle. I find it unusual, but not at all strong or repellent.( I have actually worn it to work.) What I love about it that it is tropical without being sweet. At least it isn’t to me.
    I really enjoyed reading your review of it. April 30, 2012 at 3:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: I loved reading what everyone else thought about it, and it’s fun how the reactions range from Alyssa’s “rotting swap” to Renee’s “garland of tropical flowers” to Grusheczka’s “smell of ripeness.” At least, it isn’t boring! 🙂

      Do you get any strong reactions to it? A few times I wore it, someone commented on something “smelling very strong.” Perhaps, I simply overapplied, but since it’s such a potent fragrance I find it hard to dose it. April 30, 2012 at 4:18pm Reply

      • Austenfan: No, no one commented. Mind you, I don’t think that would be likely where I live. Although whenever I have worn Rien ( only one small spray at the base of my neck) people have commented.
        I don’t find Manoumalia that strong. I had to reapply after maybe 3-4 hours because I could no longer smell it.

        To me Manoumalia glorifies decay, it is just not conventionally pretty, but so many great things aren’t. April 30, 2012 at 4:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m also glad that it isn’t conventionally pretty. There are so many of such fragrances out there, but there are so few that truly explore the dirty, raunchy notes. For those, you have to explore the classics, which certainly don’t shy away from animalic effects. Guerlain Shalimar may seem so prim & proper with its venerable history and established pedigree, but it’s such a bombshell!

          I wear Rien with no problems, and I even got a couple of compliments on it. April 30, 2012 at 4:57pm Reply

          • Austenfan: Actually the comments on Rien were positive. The best one was that it smelled unusual and that it suited me.

            Yeah, the classics; have you ever smelled Schiaparelli Shocking? I haven’t, and I should have. My mother went through a bottle of it, back in the day. April 30, 2012 at 5:06pm Reply

            • Victoria: Funny that you mention it. I’m smelling it right now! Since we started talking about raunchiness, rotting swamps and classics, I immediately thought of Shocking. I have a mini bottle, and the perfume must have aged quite a bit, but it still smells pretty good. Dark leather, chocolate-like musk and plenty of that sweet, heady ylang ylang that makes Manoumalia such a voluptuous blend. It’s different from Manoumalia, but the provocative character is similar. April 30, 2012 at 5:14pm Reply

  • carter: I absolutely adore Manoumalia, and it was Denyse who turned me on to it. And like Denyse, I have a very different reaction (non-reaction?) to it than others. Like you, however, I hesitate to wear it in public because I know so well from reading comments on various perfume blogs that it can make many people terribly uncomfortable. April 30, 2012 at 5:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sometimes you need perfumes to wear only for yourself. 🙂 I now think of Manoumalia as my fantasy, escapist perfume. It’s my olfactory Bollywood equivalent!

      I would have loved to take it to India with me and to smell it there. I wonder how it would feel in the tropical context. Would it seem natural or completely overwrought? April 30, 2012 at 5:50pm Reply

      • Brian Shea: You might just blend into the background. I’ve been reading not only the post, but the comments as well. This perfume sounds really intriguing! March 4, 2013 at 12:02am Reply

  • JulienFromDijon: I wanted to stock one bottle of it. I did (ebay auction, noch such a bargain though).
    I remembered “manoumalia” as stronger. I still have to check with my old sample, if a twist occured.
    It lingers on the skin -of fabric- as a nice sweet thing after 15mn, I somehow would have want it to find a middle between the lusciouly overwhelming opening and the drydown. May 6, 2012 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: If you compare, I would love to know what differences you find. I only have a sample from Luckyscent, which I would guess is fairly recent. May 6, 2012 at 3:21pm Reply

  • Erica: After this review, I had to get a sample. I’ve been trying for the past few years to find something to replicate my feelings about growing up in Hawaii. What’s interesting about this is that I don’t smell anything except absolutely gorgeous flowers and warmth. It’s perfection and I will likely buy at least a decant of it. May 7, 2012 at 5:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Now you can have your Hawaii in a bottle! 🙂 I’ve let my friend from India smell Manoumalia, and she said the same thing–it smelled of an Indian flower market to her, nothing untoward or strange about it. Just the smell of tropical flowers. May 7, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

  • Vasilisa: Dear Victoria, I just smelled Manoumalia today for the first time, and I found it to me the most touching fragrance I had ever tried. It smells exactly like the inside of my late granfather’s brimmed hat, a scent I though I would never experience again. It smells like a person, with all the slightly obnoxious, yet lovable facets of human smell . I had zero assosiation with the tropics (my granfather lived in former soviet union) but with wool, grease and leather. I was very surprised to find out that this fragrance was all about tropical flowers! November 2, 2012 at 4:53pm Reply

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