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The Face

Sniff, and Scratch Your Head

Published: August 28, 2005

Start with the obvious: Diorella is a profoundly strange perfume. A Frenchman I said this to became very defensive and replied, ''Diorella is a classic!'' Which was not only irrelevant -- it also missed the point entirely. Can you describe Diorella? People say, ''Intensely flowery''; they say, ''Fresh yet weightless''; they say, ''Notes of citrus and ripe fruit'' and blah-blah-blah. O.K., fine. All of this is wrong: what is wonderful about Diorella is that it smells like a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste. Not gel. Paste. It is a great, great fragrance. It was created for Dior by the legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska in 1972, and it feels like 1932 and 2022 at the same time. And that means that Diorella is -- there's just no other way to describe it -- strange. And that's good.

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Laurie Simmons/Sperone Westwater, New York

A rich, tasteful fragrance sauntered by one evening on long legs. I was at a Fragonard party in Paris with the perfume expert Luca Turin, and he shrugged it off. ''Luxury scent,'' he said. ''Not chic.'' Then he brightened and said, ''Now, Caron, on the other hand, is absolutely proper, proper chic.'' ''What is chic?'' I asked. He said, ''Um,'' and squinted at the ceiling as if the definition were written up there. ''Chic,'' he finally said, ''is when you don't have to prove you have money. Chic is not aspirational. Chic is all about humor, which means chic is about intelligence.'' Then he added: ''And there has to be oddness. Luxury is comfortable, expensive and conformist. But chic, which, of course, must be polite and not incommode others, can be as weird as it wants.''

Now, strange is hard to come by. People fear strange. ''It's not something I look for,'' admitted Pamela Roberts, the creative director of the marvelously unusual collection L'Artisan Parfumeur, although she fully appreciates it. ''Givenchy's Amarige is a gorgeous perfume,'' Roberts says. ''And exactly what you expect a gorgeous perfume to be. I love it, and it is luxurious, whereas Chanel No. 19 is very strange. Sublime and strange.''

Speaking of strange, L'Artisan Parfumeur has Dzing!, which smells of the circus: the smell of the great cats, the sawdust in the ring and the leather whip. Turin introduced me to Dzing! with one word: ''weird.'' If you think that sounds unwearable, go to the new L'Artisan store at Thompson and Spring Streets in SoHo and smell it; you might find you're wrong.

L'Artisan's strangeness comes in part from its search to transform familiar odors into perfume. ''When we came out with Premier Figuier, it was extremely strange,'' Roberts told me. ''People said that for years. One day I walked by a girl -- 1994, it had just come out -- and she said, 'C'est merveilleux! You smell like a tree! I want some.'''

I just got Burberry Brit Red, and it's one of the oddest scents I've come across in a long time. You think, Fruit. Then you think, No, candy. Then you think, The heat that comes off arid stones after baking under the sun. Then you think, Well, no. ...

''Strange perfumes,'' Roberts says, ''have the quality of being unplaceable.'' Frederic Malle, the creator of the exquisite Editions de Parfums, defines them nicely: ''They are themselves.'' For Malle (and lots of others), Guerlain's Mitsouko is one of the smartest fragrances ever, ''a bizarre accord of chypre, fruit and you have absolutely no idea what else.'' The analogy in his view is music: ''When you hear a familiar tune, it's not chic. It's charming.

But Schubert or Mahler, their odd contrasts, the weird, darkish tonalities -- they're strange.''

Consider Sugar and Sake by Fresh, two fragrances I love. But only one is strange. White table sugar itself has no smell, and its perfume namesake is a lovely olfactory concept of the idea of sweetness that is delightful. Sake, on the other hand, is strange. It has no identifiable smell, not even sake. When you wear it, people don't say, ''Wow, I love your fragrance.'' They say, simply, ''You smell wonderful!''

Then there's Rei Kawakubo, the queen of strange. Kawakubo's fragrances do that same can't-define-it thing. Her 2 is the dictionary definition of strange. I hated it at first, and now I love it. A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a pleasant 20-something at Club Macanudo. He stuck out his arm. I leaned over obligingly and said, ''2.'' He was floored. ''Superimpressed, dude!'' -- but he shouldn't have been, given 2's perfect embodiment of the quality of strangeness. 2 is a shape-shifter, a snake of smoke in dark air. It is strangeness that makes your eyes narrow, strangeness that pulls you into deep waters. It is brilliance in a bottle. But some people don't seem to get that. Which, to me, is very strange.