A Wail and a Whisper, or How I learned to Love Le Labo: Perfume Review

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Before I ever smelled it, I fell head over heels for the idea of Le Labo—a perfect victim of cupid’s marketing marksmanship.

During a YouTube marathon I  happened on their grainy black and white biography.  Immediately I yearned to associate myself with the rock star apothecary packaging and find my olfactory destiny in one of their little numbered blends.

I hadn’t felt such a strong impulse since the time I first saw my friend Vicky order a Campari and Soda at a Chicago Café.  The red liquid seemed to ignite the glass and came with a requisite slice of orange an accompanying mini bottle of club soda, à la Pastis.

I vowed to make it mine.

The thing is, the first several times I ordered it,  the smell—not to mention the taste—shocked my senses into oblivion. It wasn’t unpleasant so much as it was intense and unapproachable, like an un-cracked code.  And thus, armed with cans of Seltzer I willed myself to love Campari, sip after tiny tentative sip.

le labo perfume review
Campari soda

Eventually I triumphed and what had once struck me as unbearably bitter, became my cherished cocktail de rigueur.  The nuances of a proper Bitter Campari e Soda still strike me on occasion.  The shock and sting of bitter orange, the constant play of light and dark, like a shadows on a sunny day.  Campari, like most bitters, began as a medicinal tonic to aid in digestion, and so it contains a proprietary blend of balsamic herbs. Within the layers you’ll find pepper and anise, rosemary and even lavender. Campari ignites with bright citrus yet oozes a cooling dark purple quality.

The trick, like any blend, is in the quantities.

Initially Le Labo hit me in the same way.   I adored every inch of the concept but the fragrances felt overbearing, impossible to breach.  I couldn’t tell if I was smelling one thing or a million things. I couldn’t wrap my nose around any of them until the end of the day, or worse, the morning after.  At night I would smell something on my pillow and along the edge of my top sheet—a sensual twist in the game that sent me to bed still thinking about it. Clutching the sheets to my nose I’d throw my head back and gulp in breath after breath until I fell asleep in the hopes that the answer might come to me in a dream.

For the good part of two years I played with samples, spraying them on at various times during the day and smelling them later.

And then I spent a sweaty 36 hours without showering.

In an un-air-conditioned Brooklyn apartment in August, a shower is more like a tease. Clad in nothing but the last few spritzes from my latest sample I drained gallons of water and drifted in and out of sleep.

le labo perfume review

When I awoke, Patchouli 24 had became one with my essence. It hovered sweet, then smoky in such a way that I kept turning my head to see who smelled so great in the room.  Hours of birch tar top notes had first evoked, in turn, a smoldering hearth and a BBQ.  Sure, it’s nice to feel scrumptious, but I’d rather provoke an appetite for something other than sauce-slathered pork ribs.

When Patchouli 24 finally calmed down, the birch tar and styrax resin leveled off to the point that the titillating burn of smoke to the nostrils served to temper the sweetness of vanilla and the damp quality of the patchouli itself, in the same the way acidity slices through the honeyed glaze of a Spätlese Riesling.  A balance of two extremes.

I returned to the Elizabeth Street store with its dark wood and vintage detailing and fought the urge to try every fragrance again and again. I ignored the doubtful little voices telling me to try just one more, that maybe this wasn’t “the one.”  Instead, I planted myself at the counter and asked for the smallest size.  Commitment.

While Paula decanted my new baby into a 15ml vial, I noticed a glass jar containing lipstick-sized plastic tubes, fitted with a pump dispenser.  These, Paula explained, while applying the personalized label to my Patchouli 24, were meant as a private pleasure for the wearer, or whomever came close enough to her skin to notice.

Unlike the Le Labo perfumes, with their shock and awe sensationalism, the scented gels dry into a whisper-light powder,  their consistency akin to fairy dust, their fragrance something like the flash of a dream during the day, intense and evanescent.

I dabbed the tops of my hands with Jasmin 17.  Three deep breaths and already I had strayed. Bergamot sparkled on top and a warm chamomile-like note provided a delicate yet earthy cushion on the bottom.  If Patchouli 24 was my long-awaited companion, Jasmin 17 would be my dirty little secret.

After all, no one else would notice, unless he was close enough.