It’s that time of year again!
This December, The Dry Down officially turns two years old (how time flies!) and we are so grateful for those of you who have stuck with this letter and have continued to read, and comment, and participate in the Slack, and have made this into such a vibrant community and a merry and bright spot on the Internet for us (in a time when so many parts of the Internet are terrible). This year, the Dry Down moved to Substack, and while that’s been an adventure on its own, we are so glad for those of you who subscribe and support us (and you still can; yearly subscriptions end at the end of this year, so if you want one of those you must subscribe before January, otherwise monthlies will still be available in 2019). You really have made it possible for this letter to continue, so thank you again. And if you subscribed to the yearly option and are still waiting on your personalized Perfume Genie survey, we are churning through the last of them this month, so be on the lookout (and please, email us at email@example.com if you have any questions or if you did not receive the survey form). Also, if you’re not in the Slack, join the Slack! It’s a fun time.
Last thing before we get into the guide this year (we have 4 picks each for you below) — we wanted to repeat our note last year about how to find samples. We know a lot of you use these guides to find new things you might want to try out for yourself, and we want to make it easy and affordable for you to do that. If we get one question most often at DDHQ, it is about how we manage to smell so many perfumes. The answer is easy: we sample like fiends. We do know a lot of you know about sampling and its joys, but some of you don’t! So, for the briefest possible roundup: here are some tips. You can get a lot of niche samples from trusty fragrance boutiques with online shops, like LuckyScent, Twisted Lily, Aedes, Indie Scents, Arielle Shoshana, Indigo, and others. For older, vintage perfumes or designer brands, you can try the decanting shops, like Surrender to Chance or Perfumed Court, which are almost always having flash sales and curating starter packs from every era. Also, you can usually find a little dram of what you want on Ebay (authenticity is a risk; but we have both found treasures there). There are also a lot of sample swapping communities on Facebook, Basenotes, and Fragrantica, where people are flinging decants back and forth across the world like perfume pen pals. The Dry Down Slack also has a swaps channel you can check out. Another hot tip: If you go into a Sephora, you can ask for two free samples of anything, always. And lastly, and this one is important: you can usually always buy samples of scents from the perfumers directly, especially with indie brands (you may have to pay a small fee, but never too much). Go to the website, grab a contact email, and ask around. Perfumers are generally thrilled to get these requests and get their work into your nose. Now, go forth (by which we mean, please don’t blame us when little glass tubes start spilling out of every pocket). And happy holidays!
The Nue Co. isn’t a fragrance line exactly, but rather a company jumping on the current trend for aesthetically pleasing health supplements. Their functional fragrance is their only perfume, and it is meant to slot into a line of wellness goods that includes probiotics, energy supplements, and sleep aids. The ad copy claims that this perfume is a de-stressing tool - the “function” in its name is that it, supposedly, brings clarity, calm, and focus. It is “designed to help you reset at times of high stress.”
As you can maybe tell, I’m not a great believer in wellness products. The functional side of this scent might work as well as it claims, or it might not, who knows. What I do know is it that it smells great, and great in a very specific way that speaks to a particular longing in me, one I suspect might be shared by at least a few others: Functional Fragrance smells like a high-end beauty store. It smells like standing in the middle of an Aesop, or Le Labo, or Fresh store and thinking that you and your own home could never smell this clean, this intentional, this perfectly put together. None of the individual fragrances at those stores ever quite smell like the interior of the store does, but somehow Functional Fragrance’s combination of green cardamom, violet, cedarwood, and- perhaps most crucially - very scrubbed-clean palo santo smells exactly like that kind of store. It’s the scent of having everything perfectly organized, matching your toenails to your scarf to your handbag, the smell of knowing what’s coming next without having to think about it. It’s the scent of a room with blond wood accents and tastefully chosen, well-kept indoor plants. It’s how you think sometimes, what if you threw all your clothes away and just bought six pieces that all matched each other and all really worked. If never being late to anything had a scent, it would smell like this. Buy it for the person you know who most has their shit together, or for the friend who most deserves to feel like they do, who quietly works hardest to hold all the edges in place. - HF
It is important to note that Diana Vreeland, the kooky, exacting late editrix of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines who is now something of a slight folk hero to women who fancy themselves eccentrics in training, had nothing to do with the line of perfumes in her name. She died in 1989, which will be three decades ago next year, and her perfume line launched in 2014; so really it’s an homage collection, for which her grandson contracts top perfumers to make exuberant floral concoctions after her image, like one of those tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall where a bunch of musicians from various genres get together to cover the discography of the dead. In this case, what the perfumers are conjuring is some of her more sumptuous language, as most of the scents are named for the types of phrases she used often, like “Devastatingly Chic” and “Simply Divine.” Diana Vreeland loved adverbs almost as much as she loved jaunty cloche hats and the color red, which is to say to an extreme degree. It seems that being around her might have been like being around an older, slightly deranged Eloise, which probably was in practice exhausting but is fully enchanting from a distance. She represents the sort of aggressive glamorama weirdness you want to spritz on your body, so I see why her perfume has done so well that it has its own counter at Bergdorfs. I always think about a quote from The Eye Has to Travel, the documentary about her life, in which an interviewer asks her for her fashion icons, and she does not name a person but instead says she looks to horses, because they have “a little extra pizzazz.” It takes a very unique mind to run Vogue and still think horses have more style in their little hoof than any living person; but that’s why she’s passed into legend.
The perfumes from the Haus of Vreeland are over the top and tipsy, like a signature cocktail where the garnish is doing a little too much work. Empress of Fashion, one of the latest, is a saffron bomb, with a blubbery, oily rose and a shot of creme de cassis. It’s so much, it’s very much, it might be too much. But, it’s also fun as hell. It comes in a blood red glass bottle with a scarlet tassel and it will either look garish or glorious on a bathroom sink, depending on your aesthetic. What it is, without a doubt, is an indulgence, the kind you think you do not need, but owning it might tilt you a little off your axis. This is what Vreeland thought good fashion should do; destabilize a person, turn them wobbly. Maybe you know someone in your life who deserves this sense of off-kilter majesty, or maybe this one is for yourself. Be the racehorse you want to see in the world. - RS
Sometimes all “basic” means is “everybody already knows that it’s good.” A lot of us are understandably embarrassed to be obvious, to follow the crowd, to do something only because everyone else has already decided on it. It’s embarrassing, maybe, to still think that the best thing at the mall is the height of sophistication, or to admit that our tastes were shaped by the limits of the Nordstrom’s beauty floor.
But sometimes good things are just good. Diptyque isn’t going to unravel anyone’s mind; it isn’t going to fundamentally change your idea of scent if you’re someone who is already interested in perfume. It isn’t going to impress your friend who always knows about the newest, weirdest beauty thing before everyone else. Diptyque smells like the mall, but slightly better. If you grew up somewhere where there was the normal mall and then, maybe a little further away, there was the fancy mall, Diptyque smells like the fancy mall (this is what most scents that claim to smell like Paris smell like, even if they are actually based in Paris, like Diptyque is). It gets no points for novelty. But it gets a whole lot of points for everything else. Most of Diptyque’s scents are beautiful; almost all of them are wearable. Its florals are bold and simple and at once, and on occasion they are sneakily transcendent, the kind of thing that gets compliments from strangers. They are also one of the single best go-to stops for gifts for your mom, or for anyone you consider a mom. While their massive candles are famously expensive, the smaller sizes of candle are still impressive looking, smell beautiful, and last a long time. The new holiday candles are gorgeously packaged, come in a variety of sizes and price points, and the almond one in particular smells dreamy. They have a huge array of body products, including reasonably priced hand and body creams that last a long time and make an extremely thoughtful gift, exactly the kind of small, everyday-use luxury that moms love to receive. They have a great discovery set featuring their most popular fragrances, one that is priced to fit in many budgets but that still is a lavish-feeling gift for a fancy mom to open.
Being a mom, like being a dad, is an identity not determined by gender or by whether one has birthed or raised actual children. I know lots of moms who don’t have kids, and I know lots of mothers who aren’t moms. Not all moms are fancy moms either, but fancy mom exists as an essential persona beyond gender, family structure, or wealth. You know who the fancy moms in your life are. They probably spent a lot of energy taking care of you this year, and made it seem so easy that it was almost invisible, because that’s what fancy moms do. Fancy moms don’t actually care if Diptyque isn’t cool, or if it reminds other people of the mall. They know how the Baies candle makes their house smell and they also know that that’s all anybody else actually cares about either. Fancy moms were there for you this year. Buy them some Diptyque. - HF
I’ll say it: 2018 has been a bewildering year. And not just due the unceasing jaw-grinding sensation of the news (do we all have TMJ of...the mind?). It’s just been a real doozy for most people I know: illnesses, job loss, breakups, family loss, mental stress, online troll cascades, health scares, the creative yips, catatonia in front of a computer screen. Of course, the world keeps spinning and good things keep happening, too: Friends had babies. They got married (I also got married! It feels like four million years ago even though it was *checks notes* apparently this fall? THIS YEAR HAS BEEN SO LONG). They wrote and published books. They wrote and published stories. They landed dream jobs. They moved to cities that were healthier for their well-being. They took up new hobbies. They got fit, got sober, got stronger. If nothing else, these daily triumphs felt all the more crucial to celebrate in the face of the thick basecoat of national melancholy that has pervaded much of this year, and I was often overwhelmed by how happy I felt when something actually clicked into place in the world. I cried harder at weddings, felt a deeper pang of tenderness every time I saw an Instagram of someone’s puppy or precocious child, felt a headier contact high of pride as I watched people I care about push through adversity to put new things into the world that weren’t there before. And this was also the year that everything exploded, in a good way, when it came to how we talk about women and abuse, and what so many have been through (even though there were also terrible public displays of how far we have left to go, and days where it seemed like the chasm was growing wider than ever). But I do feel like we have a working vocabulary for discussing these previously-hushed experiences now, one that has spread so wide that I’ve had really productive conversations with people generations older than me that I never saw coming. It does feel like the gears are crunching forward, however slowly and stickily. In any case, this is where I recommend a “men’s scent” that smells like “a boy’s club” in a world where we all know that the boy’s club is absolutely terrible.
Monsillage is a Canadian line from Isabelle Michaud (support independent women perfumers!), whose trademark is bracingly fresh scents that are far more complex than they seem at first. Her perfumes are like heavy, sharp golden shears, the kind that cut cleanly but also have a pleasurable, almost indulgent weight to them. Aviation Club is her “manliest” scent, which is to say it smells like the idea of a velveteen smoking lounge -- brandy snifters, leather goods, loose tobacco -- but it also has a celery-esque vegetal gloss that makes it feel modern and not at all ponderous or pretentious or patriarchal. It’s a nostalgic scent you can feel good about, because it’s divorced in all the ways that matter from the nostalgia that is making our lives so bad right now (it is Canadian, not made by a man, not aggressively gendered one way or the other). Give this to someone in your life who got you through this year, who offered you a cozy clubhouse when you needed it most. - RS
Memo’s scents are all about escape. Founded by a couple who met and fell in love on a ski lift, and who then set out to travel the world hunting for the scents of far-flung locales, their perfume line is a permanent vacation, a life so luxurious that one might spend the whole of it looking for a further place to get away. It’s the promise of being swept off to a different world, one where this entirely other type of person lives, the sort who falls in love with someone they meet on a ski lift, the kind who is perpetually arriving at a grand hotel where they are a known and valued customer. It’s a perfume about someone else’s life; it smells the way you imagine the world might be if you were richer, more beautiful, more successful. When you’re on vacation and very briefly think, but what if I just never came home, or when you see someone’s instagram and think but how are they on vacation *all of the time,* that’s what Memo smells like.
Most of Memo’s scents are very specific, evocative of a particular place even if it is only the version of the place experienced by its wealthiest tourists. Moon Fever, however, is one of the few Memo fragrances whose name and conception do not tie it to a geographical point on a map. Rather, it smells like the idea of escape itself, like the very essence of vacation. This might be why it’s a great perfume for people who have only recently gotten interested in fragrance. It is luxurious, but uncommitted, a creamy blank page. It starts with bright citrus notes, grapefruit, lemon, and neroli, and then opens into the warmer embrace of leather, tonka bean, and vetiver. But all of these are soft and muted, their aggression put aside. Moon Fever smells like the longing for elsewhere, the airport just before the beginning of vacation. It smells like what we hope for from travel outside of logistics and worries, like the very idea of getting away. Give this to someone who’s new to perfume. Give this to someone you want to run away with. - HF
Here it is, a hot take: holiday shopping season is not really for buying gifts for other people. Hear me out: I’m not saying don’t give presents (though of course giving experiences always wins out over stuff, because stuff keeps us trapped in the capitalist consumptive cycle, but this is a gift guide, so let’s just assume for the sake of this exercise that we are all pro-gift in some capacity). But I always find that December is the single most stressful time to try to buy something for someone else: you have this compressed, cold time in which to compute all of the things you know about a person into some kind of magical algorithm, and somehow you need to produce an object they desire so much that the afterglow of receiving it will last well into the new year. Holiday shopping after Thanksgiving always feels like cramming for an exam way too late, that cold adrenaline sweat of knowing you’re totally winging it. Which, fine, a lot of the holidays are about holding on tight and winging it for dear life. That’s a given. But I prefer to do a lot of my gift shopping for others in the lazy days of summer, when it doesn’t feel like I’m trying to delight someone on deadline.
And yet (and I guess this is the real scorching content): the holiday season is amazing when it comes to buying a little something for yourself that you’ve been dreaming about all year, especially if that thing happens to fall into the general “beauty accoutrement” category. Everything comes in a set right now! Everything comes with a promo code! The value on most Sephora skincare bundles that pop up around December like a Yeti never to been seen again after the ball drops is insane (like hundreds of dollars off?). If you are a department store person (I am not, but I fully understand the allure), so many items come with bonus mini lip stains and sparkly little zip bags and all those unnecessary fripperies that you will want to have a stash of when the Seasonal Affective Disorder really kicks in around February. And the same goes for perfume. This is sample set season -- a lot of brands keep discovery boxes in stock all year round, but several emerge with new sets or restock their classic ones at the end of the year. Most fragrance flights are good deals (with few exceptions, most samplers are under $50) and come with pretty healthy pours in nice sprayers, so you get that extra thrill that comes with bargain hunting. Discovery sets are also at their most useful in January, when you are setting intentions for the year, modgepodging various resolutions together into something like a mission statement. When you have a whole wardrobe of scents in front of you, the world feels very fresh and very new. You’ll want to capture that feeling, before it all gets hazy again.
Sana Jardin is a relatively new perfume house from Paris whose whimsical scents I discovered in a shop early this year and have become more or less obsessed with since. I honestly cannot pick a favorite, and because I am recommending the whole tasting menu in a box, I don’t have to. Sandlewood Temple No. 4 is probably the masterpiece (guiacwood and neroli, like very fine smoked marmalade), followed by Tiger By Her Side, which is spicy and gooey and uses patchouli not like a weapon but like a warm embrace. But the point is you don’t have to choose. Gotta catch em’ all.
PS -- Discovery sets do also make excellent gifts for others; they are truly the best thing to give someone who is just dipping their toe into perfumery. Other great sets: Neela Vermiere (opulent, overstuffed florals) , Goldfield & Banks (my go-to set for getting into the brackish/professorial cologne side of things) , Olympic Orchids (the indie perfume set of my dreams, tbh), Envoyage (a bounty of vintage-inspired chypres for nights out), Hi Wildflower (a beautiful collection of fragrance oils from one of the best independent perfumers in Brooklyn), Montale Aouds (decadent, smoky, dank). And (hot tip) if you contact any indie perfume house you like, they can usually put together a custom sampler set for you if they don’t already have one on the site. Ok, go play. - RS
New Yorkers do this thing - maybe people in other big cities where most everybody lives in apartments do it too - where we call our apartment our “house.” “I still haven’t left the house,” “come over to my house,” “the party’s at their house.” Nobody has a house; we all mean apartments. The houses we refer to are tiny, maybe two rooms and a bathroom if we’re really living large, cut out of other buildings in pieces. By all rights these small spaces, often not any bigger than a medium-sized hotel room, should feel temporary. We live shoved up against other people’s lives, never enough storage space or places to put furniture, making workarounds for tiny kitchens and bedrooms without windows. But we call these small spaces houses, as though by insistence we could turn a haphazard room-and-a-half into the sweeping expanse of a driveway and a yard and a patio, the foyer gliding across to the open kitchen. This verbal habit is wishful thinking, the strategic self-delusion by which people living in an essentially unlivable place make their lives sustainable. It is another way in which New Yorkers invent myths about themselves in order to get through the day, a tactical game of pretend. Looked at one way, it’s a little pathetic; grown-ups playing house because they can’t actually have houses.
But looked at another way it’s hopeful, stretching the word “house” into the idea it holds; a house is not determined by number of rooms, nor by square footage, nor by how many cars can fit in the garage. None of these are the essential things about a house. Rather it is the ability to come home, and the containment within a warm room, repeated every day, a place to which we can anchor ourselves. This generous idea of “house” probably smells, at least to me, a lot like Cire Trudon’s new fragrance, Revolution. This scent claims to be inspired by the chaos in the streets during the French Revolution - gunpowder, smoke, and leather. Maybe it will smell that way on you. But on me it smells like what I mean when I call my apartment my house - an encompassing harmony of warm wood notes piled on one another, with an under-tinge of christmas trees that carries all the punctuating excitement of holidays, and the smoke-smell of someone else’s cooking wafting out from under their door as you climb the stairs to their apartment.
New Yorkers’ extending the term “house” to places that are clearly not houses is also a reminder of how the term might become even larger, and apply to that which is not a physical place at all. People themselves can offer that sense of a warm room, of permanence, the smell of cooking, the feeling of coming from the cold. Give this to someone who feels like a house. -HF
One of the first things people ask me when they hear that I write about perfume is if I ever get sick of it; if my nose gets numb, if I ever feel overwhelmed by olfaction and just want to lock myself in a padded room with no discernable scent whatsoever or huff camphorous mountain air for hours until my sinuses return to normal. This is a fair question. But it also comes with the subtle suggestion that perfume is a headache, and that when consumed in excess quantities it must be like having a pounding migraine that won’t abate. This may be why people look surprised when I say that nope, I never get fragrance fatigue. If anything, smelling something always wakes me up, jolts me into a memory or a feeling or at least the present moment. I’m a junkie for that dopamine hit of sniffing something truly complex or odd or even stupidly beautiful; it’s a better stimulant than chewy black coffee from a cheap diner (sidenote: this year I discovered a scent that smells like dark roast that’s been sitting on the burner too long, and it’s slowly working its way into my all-time favorites). What does wear me out is the sameness; there are now thousands of perfume launches every year, and so many of them smell exactly alike, to the point where they are like a group of teenagers who all coordinated via text to wear the same shirt to school. I recently wrote a year-in-fragrance roundup for a women’s magazine, and so many of the testers I smelled for the piece (some of which were big, splashy launches; names [redacted] for kindness’ sake) felt like teas all brewed from the same weak bag, filled with dusty crushed up flowers and metallic chemicals. Those scents, the ones that smell like being trapped in a Duty Free store with no chance of escape, they are the ones that really wear down your nose. Inhale too many of those and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a Sephora for just a minute, just to browse, and then somehow you emerge weeks later, puffy and bleary-eyed, with ten eyeshadow palettes you don’t need and a tinny pop song lodged in your brain.
But one of the joys of perfumery is that there is always something surprising happening if you care to look beyond the shelves; a scent that will zing around your cortex like a pinball is always a click away. This year, my favorite offbeat discovery was the January Scent Project, a tiny house out of Rhode Island run by the visual artist John Biebel. Biebel shimmied into perfumery through the back door -- which is to say he is not a formally trained chemist, but began as a hobbyist; first as a blogger for Fragrantica, and then as a curious amateur ordering fine oils and perfumer’s alcohol through the Internet and experimenting with them in his studio. As he writes on his site, the pathway to independent perfumery has never been so available (“ If anything, we've learned that the mixing of essences is a level playing field, available to any of us, and particularly open to the development via collaboration.”) but it does require a deft touch. Indie perfumes are not always better than the big designer releases, but when they are done well, no mainstream scent can touch them. The best indies are bottles full of big ideas, wacky moon-shots transmitting the creator’s vision. And when I smell JSP perfumes, I feel like I understand exactly what Biebel believes in, which is that scents should have many lives on the skin, like cats. You travel with his perfumes; they take you somewhere different than where you started. Vaporocindro is probably my favorite of the line. It’s always swerving on you the minute you think you’ve pinned it down. It is technically an ode to lilac (one of the very hardest notes to capture in scent — many perfumers have gone crazy trying to re-create it), but it is also about five other things. It opens with a soft nuttiness, like creamy peanut butter, then glides into a rainy green wet forest floor situation, then opens up into a pillowy purple floral that haunts you for a few hours like a friendly ghost, careens into the exact smell of an old cedar chest, and finally ends in a puff of smoke, like a last gasp. It’s so strange and gorgeous and random and wearable and it’s never boring. Give this to someone who thinks that life is dull; prove them wrong. -RS