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 kanakambaram) by mckaysavage, via flickr.com, some rights reserved. Women in South India wear such lovely garlands in their hair on daily basis, a wonderful custom.