The Dry Down Six: Back To School
Plus an FAQ about the fall boxes!
Dear Dry Downers,
Welcome to another installment of The Six, in which we each recommend three perfumes (roughly) around a theme. Today, we are thinking about Back To School scents. It has been a long time since either of us technically matriculated in a class, but going back to school is more of a state of mind rather than a state of enrollment. This is a period of change but also anticipation -- so many things are fresh in September and October: blank notebooks, sharp pencils, unpilled sweaters, unsmushed chapstick. Because this time is inherently transitional, it is also vulnerable. We like to think of fall as a cozy, comforting season, like a continuous cup of hot cloves, but it can be jarring and unsteady. This is the time when, as children, we weren’t yet sure who our friends were, who we could sit with at lunch, who was an ally and who was a potential tormentor. We weren’t yet sure how tough the class material would be, or how stressed we’d be trying to stretch towards it, or which teachers would be hard on us. In many ways, the big marketing push around autumnal snuggliness may be a band-aid and a forgetting device. You always carry a bit of nervousness in your ribs around fall, and Big Pumpkin Spice is trying to spackle over that. It’s natural to feel a bit open and raw right now; you’re heading back to school. Here are some scents to match the season.
Also! Before we launch into the perfumes, a reminder: our Dry Down x Twisted Lily Juice Boxes launched this week, and this one is a limited edition, so the supplies are going fast (we mean this! We just checked the numbers!). We have gotten a few FAQs about the box, so for new subscribers or those who didn’t get a Juice Box last year, here is a little more info about what the boxes are and why you might want one!
What is the Juice Box? The short answer is that it is a collectible box of nine perfume samples in 2ml sprayer vials. Usually, perfume samples of that size range from $5-6, but in this case you are getting them for just over $3 each (a steal tbh). The longer answer is that we partnered with the Brooklyn-based perfume boutique Twisted Lily and curated a box of our favorite fall scents for you to all try out. You can read more about the scents and why we picked them here.
Why samples? Technically, samples are just very tiny individual bottles of perfume. And they are also the best way to try out an entire library of new scents to discover what you like (and if you like any of the scents in the box, the store is offering a 20% discount code for a full bottle). We tried to vary the types of perfume in the box, so you are getting to try a lot of different scent families: floral, aquatic, herbal, and woody.
What else should I know? Another fun aspect of the Juice Box is that there is an entire channel to discuss the scents on the Dry Down Slack (join here), so you can think of it like a fragrant book club. Also, in light of what’s been going on in the world, a portion of the proceeds for this season’s box will go toward both Translifeline and HIAS.
Ok onto the six!
This is an old, old-fashioned, and admittedly expensive, perfume (although it's worth noting that plenty of super-new, niche, cool-kid brands think nothing of slapping a $250 or $300 price tag on a bottle, and that astronomical prices are not the sole purview of crusty old fashion houses with French names. Still, this is a case where I recommend Surrender to Chance or Ebay samples until you absolutely fall in love and maybe even after that - I have plenty of perfumes I wear often and adore that I have only bought by the sample vial).
The first leather jacket day in fall is a holy day, a time of transformation. The leather jacket is a bizarre luxury object: Toughness, rebellion, and the ghosts of motorcycle gangs, sold by fashion houses at the same prices as a high-end handbag or an evening gown. For most of us, a leather jacket is a little bit of a fake, and a little bit of a lie. It's promising more than we can deliver, trying to project stronger swagger than our persona can really support. Leather jackets rarely look as good as we think they will, or as good as they feel to wear. They are cumbersome, too warm or not warm enough, hard to quite match to the weather. They overwhelm most outfits that aren't jeans and a white tank top, and paired with jeans and a white tank top they just remind you that you aren't either young Marlon Brando or a 1990's supermodel.
But all of this, this outsize swagger, this big pose unsupported by the substance behind it, this baseless lunging hope that maybe this time the thing will meet the idea of the thing, is part of what this back-to-school season is about, and part of the joy of it too. Cuir Beluga is a huge leather scent, wrapped up in a cloud of flowers and citrus, and blanketed in the drydown by creamy vanilla and amber. But the leather keeps these surrounding notes from being cloying, and the effect is of an old-fashioned, feminine, beautiful woman throwing a leather jacket on over a silk dress. Sometimes the awkwardness of the leather jacket, its dissonance, its teenage brattiness is exactly what we want from it. Cuir Beluga is a seriously elegant fragrance, probably the most elegant leather scent one can wear, but it cuts against that elegance with a heady rebellion, a refusal to obey, to keep quiet. Fall is a time for big plans, a time to stride out into the world determined to get it right this time. It doesn't matter if we fail; it doesn't matter if the leather jacket doesn't look quite as good as we imagine it looks. The bold gesture, and the swelling wave of determination that carries us forward with it, is what matters, what sends us back up to life again, back into the ring one more time, proud and game, willing to be a little ridiculous, willing to take ourselves more seriously than perhaps we deserve. - HF
Anyways, Mrs. B. She was the sort of teacher whose name became a snickered shorthand, a joke whispered in the hallways — and all because she had a mysterious adult life that we couldn’t possibly understand while we molted through puberty. Her straw-colored hair was always piled up into a spun-sugar bouffant and she always seemed to have one extra button on her oxford undone, so that her tanned décolleté heaved out when she leaned over you to check your work (she had that toasted, freckled skin of the middle-aged sunbather). She had a raspy, kittenish smoker’s voice with a lilting Marilyn-esque drawl, and she always had a pencil tucked behind her ear that she would chew on during class. We knew that she was recently divorced (I have no idea how we did), and somehow, all of these factors -- the platinum beehive, the plunging necklines, the coquettish vocal fry, the oral fixation on that pencil -- led to the rumor that she was a woman of loose morality. The boys used other words in the locker room, I‘d guess. I realize now, looking in the rearview, that she was likely having a terrible year: she was alone again, stuck in a musty lab, and forced to teach hormonal, smelly youths how to turn on their Macintosh II LCs and wait out the hours while they played math games with hideous Midi-music that could drive a person insane. We mistreated Mrs B. And we turned her into a meme. Once, she gave an assembly pep talk, where she encouraged us all to “sharpen each other’s pencils.” What she was trying to say, I think, was that we should engage in academic fellowship. We immediately turned it into a joke about fellatio, which is why middle-schoolers cannot be trusted with anything. All year long, we made the joke (“I heard she sharpened his pencil behind the bleachers” etc). Mrs B. didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve any of it. Kids can be so cruel, even to their mentors.
When I think of her now, I think of the way that she always smelled of pencil shavings. At the time, this detail deepened the humor for us. But in retrospect, it was a deeply comforting smell. I remember feeling calm when she would lean in to help me restart my computer, radiating that woodchip scent, like the sweet chunks of cedar that you use to line a hamster cage. I’ve been searching for that essence for years, and I recently found it again in wearable form. Dawn Hurwitz’ No 2 smells exactly like Ticonderoga pencils. Wearing it may give you flashbacks to the years when you weren’t so kind. But you can always get sharper. - RS
The thing is, you can go and put your hands in the earth at any time and feel feelings about it; it doesn't have to be fall. You can rent a cabin somewhere up in the woods and if it's at a high enough altitude, among trees, it will still be chilly in the morning. You can wear a large knit blanket around your shoulders, and white clouds of steam will come out of your mouth when you talk and rise visibly off of a cup of hot coffee. Most of the things we attribute to seasons are either available to us all year round, or not available at all, not even in the season that supposedly makes them possible. Orto Parisi's Terroni is a perfume about the earth, about the smells of rock and stone and thick, dark woods. The name is inspired by the still-bubbling lava beneath the once-volcanic ground in Southern Italy. A landscape that was once on fire, and that is still on fire inside of the earth, under the cooled surface of the ground. The land keeps secrets, and it does so all year long, regardless of the color of the leaves up on the surface.
But fall is a season of harvest, even for those of us in big cities who have little or no relationship to the cycles of working the land that produce the ideas of seasons in all their myth and mandated emotion. Terroni smells like a campfire in the woods, and like lying down against the ground far out into a forest where no one can find you. The spooky aspects of fall are often both about our relationship with the earth, and our disconnect from it. What we have ignored and minimized cannot in fact be thought away, and rears up to haunt us. Stories about ghosts, and skeletons, stories about rotting bodies and headless horsemen, are stories about our inability to wrest any real control away from the earth, from the natural world which is larger than, older than, and largely not legible to, those of us who live within it. All wood and spice, Terroni is a bonfire in the deep woods and also the darkness that surrounds the fire, getting closer at the edges as the flames die down. It's the comfort of earth, and also the violence bubbling under its surface, the warmth and the threat in the warmth. - HF
Black pepper is a funny note in perfume. It’s not a substance that immediately screams wearable. Fresh cracked tellicherry peppercorns, when directly inhaled through the nostrils, tend to induce sneezing and discomfort. Still, pepper is trotted out a lot in perfumery as a shorthand for “spiciness,” that kick that hits you at the back of your palate when you smell something rich and aromatic, that certain tickly je ne sais qua that turns a scent from bland to zestworthy. Sometimes, to tilt a fragrance into elegance, perfumers will substitute black pepper for a pink pepper note, which is a much milder and much less detectable oil, and also one that is less volatile in compositions. It is also boring. Black pepper makes a scent dangerous, it might even tip it into downright funky. One moment, you’re floating on aromatic vibes, the next you might worry you smell like a plate of cacio e pepe (and now I’m hungry). It’s a tough edge to balance on! But I would encourage you to experiment with that edge, because for fall there is little better than wearing a scent overdosed on pepper, channeling a waiter at Macaroni Grill who has gotten zealous with the mill and just won’t stop grinding flakes over your cannelloni.
Erborio Toscano is a teeny Italian perfume house that I would likely not know about if it wasn’t for a small countertop display at Perfumarie, a new-ish fragrance shop in Soho (I wrote about their perfume-on-tap system here). The shop places rollerballs (or really 10ml sprayers, the size of old-fashioned peppermint sticks) of the whole Erborio line close to the register, encouraging impulse shopping (my downfall). Mindy, the store owner, told me she brought the brand in because they make some truly unique scents, the likes of which she’d never smelled in the U.S. -- their Noble Violet smells like chalky pastilles and I want to bathe in it, and their Vanilla is oddly cold, like a frosted windowpane. But I was drawn right to the Black Pepper -- whenever I see the ingredient featured as the marquee note in a juice my heart skips. And as it turns out, this is the most beautiful pepper scent I have ever stumbled into buying. It has none of that almost-B.O. quality that can come with fragrances built around seasonings, but instead pops off the skin in fresh bursts, like it’s carbonated. As it turns out, when you mix pepper with aldehydes, you get savory seltzer, and as it turns out, savory seltzer makes for undeniably addictive perfume. Pepe Nero wakes me up every time I wear it; it’s rich and silky, but not quiet. It’s a thinker, ideal for a pensive season. I’ve taken to putting it on every scarf I own, so that when I wrap myself up I’m surprised again by how much I love it. - RS
Fall is so overdetermined as to almost not exist -- and climate change means that more and more it doesn’t exist in a literal way, either -- but the first lifting of cool air at the end of the long, sweaty summer is still like a blessing, like the most tangible version of hope. I often fall into the trap of thinking of cleanliness as antiseptic, and clean scents as intentionally opposed to the pervasive weirdnesses and bodily funks that are the whole enticement of scent, these strange rabbit-holes down which perfume allows us to venture. Lots of clean scents deserve this criticism; there is a whole universe of false blamelessness iterating out from Tommy Girl and CK One.
But clean scents can also be something else, something more culpable, and stranger, and better. The first breath of cold weather feel clean in a way that acknowledges past sins, but does not expect us to slough them off and forget about them. It is rather the hope that, carrying what we have done, what we have learned, and that for which we cannot entirely be forgiven, we might still move forward into the next thing. Heavy with our carried-over past, we might still be able to locate some sense of ongoing, some hope of a continuance in spite of it all.
Lavender is clean but it is also deceptive. One of the most iconic flowers for perfume - the lavender fields in Grasse stand in for the entirety of perfume, both art and industry - lavender is ubiquitous and obvious, often seen as cozy, toothless. Lavender is supermarket bath gels and soothing oils to help you sleep; lavender is a scent that, like vanilla, reminds men of their mothers. A bedtime story, lullabies and childhood.
I thought all this about lavender until I wore Serge Lutens' Gris Clair for the first time, a scent that smells at once like a lavender field on fire and like a postcoital cigarette. The truth is, lavender is wild. That's probably why people have been making scents out of it for so long - it can be so many different things, at once chimeric and indelible. Frederic Malle's new lavender scent, Music for a While, is like the first rising breath of fall air, balancing freshness with recrimination and the promise of a new day with the threat of early darkness. It has the bedtime comfort of lavender, but also the burning-field smell of it, enhanced by autumnal patchouli and amber. Like a lot of Frederic Malle's scents, it isn't easy to wear, and isn't for everyone. But it rewards the person who does make it work in equal measure to its difficulty. It smolders and sings.
Fall is temporary and passing, music for a while, and maybe what we like about it - those of us who like it, as I know the obsession with autumn isn't actually universal, as much as I let myself be lazy about pretending it is - is that it's a transitive verb. Autumn is a movement from one thing to the next. The bite of it is in the knowledge of encroaching loss. Music For A While has a bunch of fruit in the bottom, which makes it sound like a disgusting yogurt, pineapple and mandarin showing up like some barely-invited friend's plus-twos to an intimate house party. Admittedly, it's off-putting, and part of why the scent is difficult to wear. But when it works, the sweetness at the bottom of the smoking lavender is a reminder of what we've lost, of what we've continued to lose, and that when we go back to school, or into the new year, each year, we are carrying more irretrievable things and more unfixable mistakes each time. Sweetness is sour and strange because it usually represents what we’ve squandered. Music For A While is a weirdly overemotional perfume, a stealth gut-punch, but then again, so is this time of year. - HF
If you are a long-time reader of this letter, then you know we have a push-pull relationship with Byredo here at the Dry Down; on the one hand, their perfumes are consistent and reliable; certainly never offensive or vulgar. Consistency is good! But it is also so rarely risky. The house’s squat, minimalist bottles look best on Instagram, as if they were born to fit the medium. They seem pre-approved and seamless for millennial culture in a way that can be numbing; there is no precariousness in them, just perfectly correct choice. And if I’m being honest, one major joy of exploring perfume is all the fumbles. I like scents when I want to smell good, but I love them when I don’t care about smelling bad, if that makes sense. I crave the eccentricity and near-gaucheness that comes from trying out overpowering, muggy, whiffy perfumes. But then again, why does everything have to be so difficult? What’s wrong with easy breezy beauty, or accessible aesthetic shortcuts? The answer is: nothing, nothing at all. Sometimes, you just want to spray Mojave Ghost in your hair and know it smells great and leave the thinking there. Sometimes you need this simplicity. I know that I do. So, like I said, push-pull.
But now, there is a new Byredo scent out in the world, and surprise -- it’s challenging. Like, very! Eleventh Hour is in every way a flex. Apparently the inspiration for the scent is the onslaught of climate change -- the perfume utilizes an essence of Ban Timmur, a rare Nepalese pepper plant, also known as Szechuan pepper, which grows only at extremely high altitudes. Basically: these plants will be what is left when the water levels rise so high that only the tips of tall peaks poke out above the sea. This is depressing to think about (and given the latest reports, might happen sooner than we ever imagined), but it is at least honest. Being a human today is about staring our own extinction in the face, about living with that every day, about smelling peril in your nostrils. The press release for the fragrance read “Eleventh Hour is an exploration around the smell of things ending, a journey to the end of Time, the last perfume on Earth.”
But how does it smell, really? So -- I know this will sound silly given how apocalyptic the official description is, but this perfume smells like...eggnog. Not in a bad way. In a marvelous way. It’s milky and eggy and full of nutmeg and cardamom and booze. So much booze. This perfume is drunk. I’d venture to say it smells more like getting absolutely wasted in anticipation of our own decline than the decline itself. But then, that twang of dizzy excess feels apropos, given the weight of the news. I know this letter was supposed to recommend scents that smell like fall, that smell like new return, like coming back to formal study. And I know eggnog is a winter smell, an aroma of festivities and forgetting. But I’m wearing this a lot lately, maybe because it reeks of sublimation, and that’s just where I am at this autumn. I’m already swerving towards the end of the year, on my own journey to the end of Time -- or at least to the end of 2018. - RS