Saturday, December 28, 2013

L'Air de Rien. Incense, old books and goat hair

L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris.

Which aromas do you find comforting? For many people vanilla seems to be the ultimate in comfort scent – reminding us as it does of home cooking and nurture, or maybe childhood memories of birthday-cake and feeling loved. Or how about the grounded smells of nature; hay-barns, wheat fields, forest floor, cow pats..?! Most of us find a walk in the country relaxing, and speaking for myself I don’t mind a whiff of cow-pat carried on a spring breeze, preferable by far to the smell of oven cleaner, for example.

It’s entirely subjective of course, although the smells mentioned above with the possible exception of cow pat, would probably win the most votes. There are hundreds of vanilla gourmand oriented perfumes out there, yet very few perfumes explore these ideas with great imagination – most perfumes intended as comfort scents are quite literal and non abstract.

Shalimar by Guerlain is one of the exceptions - playing on a richly authentic vanilla comfort-scent; darkening it with leather/birch tar and contrasting it with intense bergamot lime.  Most gourmands are not abstract enough to keep our interest for very long – there aren’t any surprises or gaps to fill with imagination, and perfumers seem to agree that a certain abstract quality is required to turn a perfume into a work of art, as opposed to a simplistic copy or capture of nature. ‘Show don’t tell’ is the literary equivalent - similarly easier said than done.

When I first sniffed L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, I knew within seconds that I loved it and that I’d buy it as soon as possible. But it’s taken me a full year to get my senses (and subsequently my brain) around this perfume; it’s not necessarily an easy perfume to love and wear!

Its ingredients are listed as oakmoss, orange blossom, incense, labdanum (resin from rock-rose), vanilla, patchouli and musk, among other things. Because of associations, one person’s grounded patchouli is another’s unwashed hippy, or pair of mouldy socks, but in L’Air de Rien it doesn’t seem to tip into the heavy, cloying hippy aspects of patchouli, and that’s all down to facets the perfumer detracts, or contrasts with other notes. 

To my nose L’Air de Rien is old books (a sweet leather/mildew accord), the scent of hair lending an intimate feel,  Nag Champa incense, goats, horse stables and cup cakes. To me it just doesn't get any more comforting, but it’s also intriguing and nostalgic. I enjoy the fact it sometimes challenges me, I can’t always wear this perfume.

On first spray it sometimes reminds me of horse manure (I've always loved horses and worked in stables as a girl so this isn’t entirely unpleasant!). The goaty note is comforting; I learned to milk goats while on holiday as a girl and I've loved goat's milk products ever since. I’ve learned to let L'Air de Rien dry down for at least half an hour, by which time the incense-sweet ash note appears and the sweaty horse has faded to something more akin to the scent of pillows after someone has slept on them.

To someone unaccustomed to analysing perfume or wearing something a bit odd (for example outside of the more popular clean floral or fruity/sweet gourmand perfumes) these descriptions might sound a bit far-fetched. But recounting the story behind the making of this perfume is a reminder that the strangest concepts can be translated to perfume – into an aura of something lived, experienced and felt, with enormous power to evoke emotion.

The perfumer Lynn Harris (of Miller Harris Perfumes) collaborated with Jane Birkin on L’Air de Rien. (Jane Birkin of Serge Gainsborough ‘Je Taime’ fame). In her own words, Jane wanted; ‘the smell of an old library, the scent of my father’s
jacket and my baby brother’s hair’. She wasn’t at all sure it was even possible to create a perfume she liked – ‘I don’t even like perfume, there aren’t any I want to wear’. L’Air de Rien translates literally as ‘Air of Nothing’, but a more accurate translation might be ‘Like nothing else – un-captured’. It’s a perfume that’s completely unique, which doesn't attempt any reference to the usual familiar anchors and that’s why, to me this has a touch of genius, as much because of its experimental feel and its success in capturing what it set out to, as the labour of love revealed by the story of its inspiration and making.

L'Air de Rien doesn't radiate too much on my skin and I'm reliably informed by my sister that it has a ‘sherbet-like, almost pink smell’. My mum exclaimed on first smelling it - ‘Now, don’t get rid of this one’ (she knows I buy and swap or sell all the time!).So its actual sillage is fairly close-to-skin, and to be honest once it’s into dry-down it’s probably only me who detects the barnyard horse-sweat note, so don’t be put off - though the first sniff might be challenging.

You can probably find a sample for less than £8 on Ebay (or on the websites at the top of this blog on the right) and I would say it’s one that’s best to try before buying, but whether you fall for it or not, if you have a curious nose it does guarantee a fascinating olfactory journey!

(Spot the cat!)

All photos© Rose Strang

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