One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Middlesex: Yves Saint Laurent Nu


The notion of a unisex scent isn't a new one by any means. Classic eaux de cologne, well over a century before Calvin Klein revived the idea with his groundbreaking CKOne, were neither male nor female, but merely refreshing scents to be worn by anyone. Nowadays, it hardly needs to be said, most people consider most scents to be either masculine or feminine, and woe betide anyone who dares to wear the wrong scent publicly. (As is usual in the world of fashion, women have more leeway than men: just as they can wear pants, not a century ago men-only garb, they can wear men's fragrances with some abandon, though a woman wearing Brut or Drakkar Noir would probably be commented on.)

Five years ago, Yves Saint Laurent launched Nu to much acclaim and considerable confusion. Women thought it was too masculine: men who tried it despite its positioning as a women's scent thought it was too feminine. Just look at the reviews on Basenotes, all over the map, from wavering ("I almost purchased it on the suggestion it could be used by men, but there is something in here that definately says feminine.") to mildly panicky ("OK I have taken the plunge and bought this one. I think I'm a man who is assured of his sexuality (heterosexual).") to accepting ("Love it! Very suitable for a man too.").

No wonder everyone is confused. Nu isn't unisex; it's brazenly hermaphroditic, starting with its name--the French word for "nude", but, as French is a gendered language, the masculine rather than the feminine form (which would be "nue").

The gender mixing continues with the the bottle, a minimalist hockey puck of violet-tinged gunmetal which snaps apart to reveal the bottle, of darkest blue plastic, the whole thing wedged into a square black frame inside a transparent smoke-coloured box.

The scent itself is a thoroughly masculine composition of incense, vetiver, and spices, with a core of hypnotic orchid, in Western culture one of the most feminine of flowers.

The opening is a shock of citrus and black pepper, with the first intimations of the orchid already in evidence. The orchid note rapidly pushes its way to the surface, paired with smoky, churchy incense and wood; dark, mysterious, almost threatening.

As the middle notes fade, something wonderful happens; the dreamy orchidaceous note takes on a vanillic tinge, as well it might--vanilla is the seed-pod of a species of orchid. (L'Artisan Parfumeur's Vanilia uses this same vanilla/orchid pairing, to very different effect.) The vanilla blooms; it becomes richer and lusher without ever taking on a gourmand feeling--that's guaranteed by the light but insistently spiny vetiver in the base. Hours later (many hours), the skin is still aglow with the memory of those orchids and a sigh of vanilla, their enduring gift.

The most daring thing about the scent is that it was clearly conceived and executed to blur the lines between feminine and masculine perfumery, to invent and then stake out some middle ground, not the indifferent field of the commercial unisex scent but something altogether more radical. It was designed to confuse. It's not for everyone, but for those who can wear it (lucky me--I can), there's nothing else in the world like it.

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