The news of Frédéric Malle selling his Editions de Parfums house to Estée Lauder reminded me that I haven’t gotten around to writing about one of the most intriguing fragrances from his collection, Portrait of a Lady. Why intriguing? Well, consider the name. If it brings to your mind the cool elegance of Henry James’s heroines, then you’re not alone. I also expected something along these lines–ultra refined, sophisticated and feminine. Except that it is all wrong. Portrait of a Lady is interesting precisely because the scent is not at all what you expect. It’s a twist on a Middle Eastern theme, and it’s not all that lady-like.
If you’ve already smelled traditional Middle Eastern perfumes or western blends inspired by them (Amouage, Kilian’s ouds, Armani Privé Rose d’Arabie), then you might recognize similar elements in Portrait of a Lady. It has a generous dose of classical “oriental” notes–sandalwood, amber, patchouli, dark woods smoked over incense, and of course, rose. It has a similar dramatic and mysterious character that makes this perfume genre so distinctive.
The difference is in the details. The creator of Portrait of a Lady, perfumer Dominique Ropion, is renowned for his ability to engineer powerful fragrances, the kind that leave a mile long sillage and yet still don’t push into the realm of “need to be banned from restaurants.” This comes from adjusting the elements of the composition in such a way that the heavy, rich effects are interspersed with the lighter, brighter ones. Portrait of a Lady is a good example of his technique and his ability to add nuance even to the heaviest and richest scents.
Opulent is an understatement when it comes to Portrait of a Lady. The first impression is of spices so hot that they feel chilly–pepper, clove, cinnamon. The honeyed sweetness of natural rose rises up like champagne bubbles, and soon you’re wrapped in a warm, velvety cocoon. (The rose and name aside, the perfume would be appropriate for men who like woods and ambery blends.)
But wait, the story is just beginning. Soon, you’ll notice the earthy, chocolate-like patchouli, and then the crisp amber with a layer of creamy, dark sandalwood. The incense starts softly, with a few smoky whispers, but after a couple of hours, the curtain of smoke thickens. The interplay between smoke, wet earth, milky woods and rose is one of the most fascinating sensations.
This doesn’t mean that Portrait of a Lady is easy (or even that it’s my favorite from the collection). It’s heavy, dramatic and has a tendency to wear you out. Forget about being inconspicuous with its dark trail around you. It’s a perfume to wear if you want attention. It’s the only perfume my husband asked me not to wear around him, saying that “it’s too strong”. And it is, but I still admire Portrait of a Lady for its big personality and intricate story.
The price tag on this perfume is high, but Portrait of a Lady is one of the most expensive perfumes I’ve smelled. Expensive to make, that is. Because ingredients of this kind of quality cost their weight in gold, if not more. It also goes a long way, because you only need one small spray to perfume yourself from morning to night. And I don’t exaggerate when I say that it lasts for days on fabric.
Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady includes notes of Turkish rose, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, incense, ambroxan, benzoin and white musk. 50ml and 100ml.
Painting: Pablo Picasso. Boy with a Pipe (a fragment), 1905. Oil on canvas. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York, NY.