Superstitious is the latest fragrance from Frédéric Malle, created in conjunction with the great couturier, Alber Elbaz. Monsieur Elbaz is perhaps best known for his stunning work at Lanvin in the 2000s, but what is less well-known is that he had his start when Yves Saint-Laurent‘s partner, Pierre Bergé, handpicked him in the late 1990s to take the helm of that august fashion house where he successfully carried on the Maestro’s style, albeit with his own twist.
At first glance, this might seem to be nothing more than an irrelevant factoid or bit of biographical background, meaningful only to those of us, like myself, who continue to worship Monsieur Saint Laurent (a god, a total fashion god!) because, let’s face it, there is usually no olfactory connection between a couture house’s design style and how their perfumes actually smell.
Superstitious, however, is a rare exception. You could have knocked me over with a spoon when I tried it because the early hours of the scent reflect not only Monsieur Elbaz’s sleek, bold, streamlined, seamless, and incredibly sophisticated personal design aesthetic but also, and above all else, the Yves Saint Laurent olfactory signature as exemplified by its early floral-aldehydic fragrances like (vintage) Rive Gauche and Y. Superstitious was intentionally created to be both vintage and modern in feel, but where it stands out for me is in its early hours when it is a perfect rendition of the grand old style of the YSL classics. I’m unenthused by the fragrance’s second chapter when the Ropion olfactory signature kicks in and Superstitious dissolves into something wholly modern, structureless, and excessively clean, but those early hours were the boldest that I’ve seen from a Malle fragrance in a long, long time.
Superstitious is an eau de parfum that was created by Dominique Ropion and released earlier this year. The detailed press release provided to me explains that the scent was constructed to mirror, in part, Monsieur Elbaz’ own fashion aesthetic and design. It was also intended to be “[a]n abstract piece of art.” While I typically find press release descriptions to be fluffy hyperbole, in the case of Superstitious, I think their account of the fragrance’s split classic-modern character, its sometimes indeterminate notes, and its olfactory structure is extremely accurate:
Like Alber’s dresses, a mystery of construction and design, I wanted to create a true “classic” – a perfume whose quality is unmistakable but whose ingredients are indefinable. What could be more beautiful? As luck would have it, I’d been working with the great Dominique Ropion for over a year on such a scent: a “grand aldehyde floral” with a classic architecture completely reinterpreted and comprising the most precious of raw materials. After convincing the ever-generous Dominique to give up “his” fragrance, I revealed it to Alber, who immediately fell in love. The two then met and Dominique finished the scent with Alber in mind. […][¶]
Like a couture gown, Dominique adapted his masterpiece to Alber’s wishes, creating a perfume beyond definition, a perfume at once modern and evocative of the great scents of times gone by. It’s a perfume crafted from the most luxurious of raw materials: essence of Turkish rose, Egyptian jasmine, velvety peach and apricot skin, labdanum resinoid, sandalwood, Haitian vetiver, patchouli, musk… each unrecognizable, save for the most fleeting of instants.
Jasmine, rose, peach, labdanum, vetiver, patchouli, musk, and aldehydes.
Superstitious opens on my skin with a cloud of aldehydes that are frothy and sheer. They’re sometimes a bit soapy, sometimes merely a little like an amorphous fizziness and bounce, but they’re softer than the sharp aldehydes that characterized some vintage 1960s and 1970s compositions. The aldehydes may not have the razor quality of Ye Olde Scents, but there is still enough of an edge to them to evoke the classics without making someone like myself, an aldehyde-hater, recoil.
Other notes are infused within. First and foremost is a green moss that smells like old-school mousse de chene: not only does it have woody tree bark tonalities, but also a wonderfully salty and mineralized aspect to it as well. On top of that, it feels as though it’s been mixed with what I would bet is a fair dose of piquant, faintly peppery, and leafy galbanum because the oakmoss has a quiet bite, it’s a little bitter, and it visually skews an unusually dark shade of green. Following on the heels of the oakmoss are vaporous trails of crisp, occasionally tart-sour citruses, sweet peach juice, and pale pink rosebuds that have only just unfurled to release their delicate scent.
The thing that makes the aldehydic opening so interesting to me and that makes me come back for appreciative further sniffs is the undercurrent of skanky, musky leather. I don’t quite understand it, given what’s on the note list, but it definitely goes beyond labdanum’s occasionally leatheriness or patchouli’s earthy side. In the past, I’ve noticed that Frederic Malle sometimes omits elements from the official note list like, to give just one example, the cumin that I and numerous other people have detected in Bigarade Concentrée, so maybe that’s the explanation. But whatever the reason or source for the leathery nuance here, the whispers of skanky, musky darkness are a fantastic juxtaposition next to the clean white aldehydes and also add some mystery.
Changes come to Superstitious like small ripples in the air. Roughly 10 minutes in, the rose joins the main notes on center stage, smelling strangely metallic and continuing the themes of sour and sweet, green and sharp. Pink petals swirl next to nectared peaches that are as soft and light as the fuzz on their skin, as well as an almost Perrier or Fresca-like citrusy aldehydic fizz, salty mosses, green bitterness, a clean freshness, and that elusive, indecipherable whisper of a sexy, faintly musky darkness. The cumulative effect reminds me, for some reason, of a gently heated leather horse saddle hidden deep within a cloud of froth made up of chyprish elements.
“Froth” is actually a word that comes to mind repeatedly in the earliest moments of Superstitious. It’s a scent whose individual components have the substance of air that’s been shot through with strands of metallic steel, effervescents, and resins of leathery muskiness. The result is a set of paradoxes which extends even to the body and weight of the scent: simultaneously strong but sheer, voluminous but also weightless and discreet. It’s a textural signature that marked the older, earlier Malle compositions but not, in my opinion, some of his newer and rather wispy releases like, for example, Eau de Magnolia or Cologne Indelebile.
I don’t know what I expected when I first read of Superstitious all those months ago, but this wasn’t it — and that’s a good thing which I mean as a compliment. Over the last few years, I haven’t been bowled over by any of Malle’s recent releases, finding them to be either banal and uninteresting (see e.g., the two mentioned above) or aggressively synthetic (Monsieur with its excessively harsh, super aromachemical, Amber Xtreme), so I confess I shrugged when news of Superstitious hit the perfume world. Not only was it a rose fragrance (not my thing) with aldehydes (shudder), but the brief press release description posted on some sites made it sounded like yet another scent done in the modern abstract style made so popular by Jean-Claude Ellena, except this was done by a perfumer I dislike even more: Dominique Ropion, the king of department store fragrances and their thousand ghastly flankers (La Vie est Belle, Tresor, Flowerbomb, Alien, etc.), and a man who seems glued to his white musk — the more laundry-like, overpoweringly intrusive, and/or sugary, the better. (I still haven’t recuperated from his godawful 2015 Mon Musc à Moi for ALOF, nor have I forgotten his utterly mediocre but luxury priced, department store-style fragrances for Orlov.) So, news of an “abstract”, aldehydic, rose modern chypre done by Dominique Ropion (of all people) bore zero interest for me except for one thing: Alber Elbaz, a man whose talent I truly admire. Even then, however, my expectations were rock bottom.
So, I mean it quite sincerely when I say that Superstitious is actually an interesting fragrance that is chic, polished, and oddly mysterious in its opening hours. I may not enjoy the 1970s aldehydic style for my own personal use, but it’s done very well here, and, thanks to that undercurrent of slightly dirty, musky leather or earthiness, the scent isn’t another facile, boring, one-dimensional, modern neo-chypre. It has character in its edges, in the angular lines within the frothy cloud, and it isn’t trying to be generically safe. I don’t think it is the easiest fragrance in its opening stages and it’s going to challenge people, even apart from those who share my aldehyde or rose issues, but the opening represents the grandest and most complex Malle to be released in quite a while, in my opinion. I have to emphasize that all of this applies to the opening and the first few hours, not the scent in its subsequent development or later hours, but that first chapter is genuinely complex, interesting, mysterious, and bold. And the specific reason why is because the fragrance intentionally harkens back to the vintage style of old, even if it is melded with modern elements. That vintage style actually trumps the latter and has a boldness of character that I haven’t seen in a Malle fragrance since Portrait of a Lady and Musc Ravageur.
I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think I actually enjoy the echoes of YSL’s vintage, 1970s-version Rive Gauche, a scent that traumatized me as a young child with its cut-throat aldehydes. (As I once explained in a post about scented memories, I actually thought RG was hair spray or a bathroom deodorizer when I first smelt it as a 6-year old and, along with Hermes’ Caleche and Ellena’s First for Van Cleef & Arpels, it made me swear off perfume for a while, while also contributing to a life-long hatred of aldehydes.) Superstitious never goes quite as far as any of those scents, thank God, but there are enough echoes here of Rive Gauche’s opening to make me think that the connection may not be wholly accidental. A “classical,” “grand,” neo-vintage-style, floral-aldehydic chyprish scent that shares a definite olfactory aesthetic with the great Yves Saint-Laurent’s most famously angular, floral-aldehydic chyprish release and which is meant to exemplify the man handpicked to be his successor? Surely it’s not a complete coincidence?
Superstitious is a fluid scent in its development, never changing in its fundamental nature during the first few hours, its notes waxing and waning in their movements, darting about the air, sometimes exactly as advertised: “each unrecognizable, save for the most fleeting of instants.” The individual components take turns, rippling in the strong but airy cloud, so it’s really a question of degree and timing as to which one dominates. For the first hour, the race is led by aldehydes, followed by the florals, and then an intertwined blur of fruits, citrus, oakmoss-ish greenness and, in last place, trailing far, far behind, that elusive, ghostly whiff of dirty musk and quasi “leather.”
In middle of the second hour, the order changes to have the florals take the lead, primarily the rose, but with the jasmine close behind, followed by the still angular and occasionally sharp aldehydes. In the third hour, the merest shadow of darkness falls over the race as Superstitious’ woods, vetiver, earth patchouli suddenly appear on the sidelines, smudging the corners of the central aldehydic floral bouquet. The jasmine become the central floral, while the rose retreats to the sidelines.
At this point, Superstitious no longer bears any relation to 1970s vintage Rive Gauche and reminds me a lot of a scent that most of you probably won’t know but which will make some vintage collectors sit up and salivate: Montana‘s glorious 1980s eau de toilette, Parfum de Peau which was much beloved for its boldness, its angular lines, and its symphony of complex floral-leather, chypre notes. Claude Montana was once one of the biggest fashion designers around, he was sometimes compared to Yves Saint Laurent, and his influence ran deep. As a Vanity Fair article elaborates, his seamless sculptural style, his mix of “Germanic” structured militancy with deep femininity, and his powerhouse women not only marked the 1980s, but also influenced many famous designers who followed, “like Alexander McQueen, Riccardo Tisci, Olivier Theyskens, and other talents of the next generation.” Coincidentally, Montana ran Lanvin in the early 1990s, before doing a “Greta Garbo” and disappearing from the industry for 15-20 years. In my opinion, his design aesthetic has quite few similarities with Alber Elbaz, his eventual successor at Lanvin, so it’s quite an interesting parallel that their fragrances share olfactory similarities as well.
Montana’s Parfum de Peau was one of my two signature scents in high school and, despite my tastes having changed quite a bit since then, I still hoard numerous bottles of the original formulation (with the navy blue-white writing but without the orange, imprinted bottle symbol), so I did a side by side test and Superstitious’ third hour strongly resembles a softer, more muted version of the Montana’s opening. That’s when big, strong, lush, rose-jasmine florals vied with glittering aldehydes and clean musk over a dark, mossy, earthy, vetiver-patchouli-woody, and increasingly leathery base. Superstitious lacks the robust narcissus-leather-orange blossom middle of vintage, original version Parfum de Peau, never mind the depths of its mossy base, its mildly skanky naughtiness underneath, its 1980s super-charged sillage (you’d never believe this was a mere EDT!), and its potency, but the two fragrances share a host of other notes and definitely inhabit the same universe. In fact, one day I went to lunch with my parents whilst on a fourth test of Superstitious and I smelt a lot like my mother who happened to be wearing Parfum de Peau. (My father thinks vintage Parfum de Peau is one of the best things ever, in part due to its juxtaposition of aldehydic cleanness and a strong dirty narcissus-leather accord; my mother is significantly less enthused by its aldehydes, but wears it for him.)
People often, and quite accurately, describe Parfum de Peau as the olfactory rendition of Claude Montana’s design aesthetic: a juxtaposition of sleek minimalism and abstractness with in-your-face boldness, big lines rendered fluid, and grand structure in a mix of hard and soft, all at the same time. I think the same holds true for both the Alber Elbaz style and for the early hours of his Superstitious fragrance. In fact, as compared to past Malle releases, I find Superstitious a surprisingly fun scent to wear in its early hours. It’s a chameleon that is neither mealy-mouthed nor mainstream bland and wholly generic. (Like Eau de Magnolia.) If the fragrance remained this way and if some of its synthetics didn’t occasionally irritate my throat, I would actually consider buying one of the travel sets for myself.
Unfortunately, Dominique Ropion’s obsessive white musk fetish kicks in, Superstitious loses its vintage feel, things turn not only modern but dissolve into an amorphous, mainstream-style scent mass without any of the complexity, character, and note delineation of the opening. The first signs of what is to come flicker at the start of the second hour when the Ropion’s white musk crutch slowly, incrementally, begins to blanket the main bouquet, gradually turning everything into a poorly delineated blur centered on abstract white florals with a vaguely jasmine-ish character, etched at the corners with vaguely vetiver-ish chyprish greenness and even fainter smudges of something tangentially earthy. In the middle of the fourth hour, Superstitious turns into an intensely sharp, soapy floral blur with a whisper of greenness but lot of metallic and laundry clean facets. The word “soap” cannot be mentioned enough. Salty, mineralized greenness from mousse de chene and a hint of galbanum? Forget about it. Fresh citruses, distinctly delineated roses with peaches and jasmine? Forget about them, too. Vaguely skanky darkness lurking deep, deep below? Not on your life. Not even the aldehydes survive Ropion’s white musk addiction.
Roughly 4.75 hours in, Superstitious is a shapeless, indeterminate mass that is also a skin scent where a laundry-like musk increasingly squashes the better parts of the scent. At the top of the 6th hour, most of them are strangled to death, while the jasmine turns into the merest ghostly suggestion in the distant background, and the white musk takes over center stage with the vetiver hovering closely behind. Once in a blue moon, there is a fleeting and wholly amorphous suggestion of woodiness that darts by, but it’s so abstract that it’s difficult to pin down or be certain.
For the most part, Superstitious is almost entirely clean laundry musk and soap layered with dark, occasionally smoky vetiver and flecked by what seems to be a wisp of rose-woodiness. I’m not certain about the latter; it’s hard to tell in the midst of so much impressionistic abstraction. Only the vetiver and the increasingly sharp, detergent-like clean musk are crystal clear to me.
Superstitious’ disappointing second chapter lasts quite a while without any change, neither major nor minor. On my skin, it’s a thick blanket of Ropion’s bloody white musk for hours and hours, accentuated by sharp soap bubbles, and with a faintly smoky, faintly woody vetiver subsumed and sublimated with. It’s “modern” in the absolute worst way possible: a wholly indeterminate, wholly generic, utterly anonymous, blur of dissolved notes marked, at best, by laundry cleanness infused with quasi-greenish sharpness. It’s all sans character except for its purely commercial, department store vibe, much like everything that has made Ropion the king of Macy’s fragrances and their flanker clones. It makes my lip curl. I really wish expensive niche houses would stop hiring Ropion and leave him in his natural element to make his inevitable 11th flanker version of La Vie est Belle, 8th version of Alien, 7th version of Flowerbomb, or 6th version of Givenchy Irresistible, all to arrive soon at a TJ Maxx near you. Yes, in case it was not clear before now, I loathe Ropion’s signature style, and I only liked Superstitious when it smelled like something vintage, not like something modern that he created. Unfortunately, his fingerprints are all over the second chapter of Superstitious, and the dissolved, indeterminate, white musk-heavy, abstractly clean, and characterless soapy drydown continues sans cesse until the fragrance finally fades away.
Superstitious had very good longevity, initially strong sillage, and initially good projection that took a while to turn soft. I was provided with a small decant whose aperture spray hole was similar to that on an actual bottle, and I always applied 2 sprays in each test. On average, the fragrance’s opening projection was about 5-6 inches, while the scent trail extended 8-9 inches, something that is quite unusual for the most recent Malle releases. The numbers dropped incrementally every hour. By the end of the 4th hour and the start of the 5th, Superstitious hovered a half-inch above the skin, and the scent trail consisted of vapors that were noticeably mostly when I moved my arms, although the actual bouquet itself was still strong if I sniffed my arm up close. Superstitious turned into a skin scent roughly 6.75 hours into its development, but it didn’t take much effort to detect the scent until the 9th hour. At that point, Superstitious was merely a skin-coating wisp of soapy, white cleanness with an occasional, ghostly suggestion of greenness folded deep within, and the scent remained that way until it finally died away early into the 14th hour.
I found it frustrating to deal with such a bipolar scent, split into two halves, where a bold, angular, interesting, complex, carefully nuanced, almost vintage-smelling and — by Malle standards — almost grand first half quickly dissolves into an utterly shapeless, amorphous modern haze with about as much personality as a wet dish rag soaked in soap, some vetiver essential oil, and Bounce fabric softener. Putting aside my personal feelings about Ropion’s style, the drydown simply doesn’t live up to the first few hours where, for the first time in a longtime, a Malle fragrance seemed on the cusp of offering something genuinely grand, even if it was by their more carefully modulated standards. You will never see a MAAI, Slumberhouse, or something like a Sultan Pasha attar in this brand’s line-up and aesthetic, but Superstitious had the most challenging, in-your-face, devil be damned, sophisticated boldness of any recent Malle release during its opening hours, to the point that even this aldehyde and rose hater initially considered buying a travel set. What on earth happened? Well, if you ask me, Ropion happened.
I would be less peevish if Malle’s prices hadn’t risen so high. When drafting my Retail/ Details section below, I compared the pricing for the March 2015 Cologne Indelebile versus the March 2017 Superstitious. In two years, prices for a 50 ml bottle have gone from $180 to $255, or €120 to €180. The large 100 ml bottles have risen from $260 to $370, or €175 to €260. Those are not minor jumps. And, at those prices, I expect more from a fragrance than merely an interesting opening 2 to 2.5 hours, especially from a house like Frederic Malle and especially when a couturier as legendary as Alber Elbaz has his name on it. I expect something appealing or at least interesting all the way through. In recent years, a number of readers have told me of their frustration with expensive new releases (from a host of different niche brands) quickly turning into the most generic, dissolved, shapeless, and mundane scent imaginable. They ask, “Why don’t brands pay as much attention to the middle and end of a fragrance as they do to the opening hook?” It’s a fair question, and, in my opinion, it applies here, too.
As I mentioned up above, I think Superstitious will be a challenging fragrance for some due to its opening stage(s), but I think an added wrinkle is that the fragrance is also a bit of a chameleon. Its intentionally fluid and abstract structure meant that it didn’t always manifest the interesting parts in its opening on me in a profound, distinct, and clearly delineated way, particularly the depth and strength of the oakmoss, or the dark, musky bits.
On top of that, Superstitious smells quite different on other people. Given the Montana phase on me, I used my poor mother and even my father as test guinea pigs to see how Superstitious smelt on them. It was quite different — and not for the better. The opening white cloud didn’t smell so much of 1970s-style aldehydes as it did soap and Ropion’s laundry clean musk; the oakmoss was a strangled cry that bore absolutely no hint of vintage-style mineralization, saltiness, galbanum, or wooded bark; the peaches were wholly invisible; the citrus turned into amplified sourness on my father but was almost invisible on my mother; there wasn’t even the remotest suggestion of leathery darkness in the opening hour; and everything was significantly less nuanced or complex. It’s as though the white musk had squashed some notes into a whisper, while completely white-washing others. My mother wanly suggested: “There’s something interesting about it…” before trailing off and turning silent. My father was so completely uninterested after the first sniff of his arm that he didn’t even bother to comment, and this is a man who normally likes aldehydic florals or aldehydic chypres (e.g., vintage Habanita, Montana, vintage Galion Sortilege) on women, enjoys discussing perfume in detail, and has no hesitation in spending a small fortune on fragrances that he likes for my mother to wear. Their joint consensus seemed to be a shrug which, I admit, was disappointing because I thought that Superstitious’ opening was great on me. But skin chemistry will not only impact which notes dominate on your skin but also the overall vibe and feel of the scent, and, on top of that, this is a fragrance that was intentionally structured to be esoteric and abstract. So, I really think that its bound to be a bit of a chameleon that will result in quite polarized feelings.
Fragrantica comments reflect that split. One person calls it: “Absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful!” Another breathlessly announces how it smells like luxury soap, says “It’s always been my dream to keep the smell of a luxury aldehydic soap on my skin for hours and hours,” and adds “Long live Dominque Ropion!” at the end. (Clearly, this person is my antithetical opposite on every level imaginable.)
On the other side of the aisle, the accounts vary in their details, but one thing they have in common is soap or aldehydes. One chap thought Superstitious was an aldehydic-jasmine bomb that was one-dimensional; another called it “Aldehydic to the point that it’s almost medicinal;” and a third found the opening to resembles Lanvin‘s floral aldehydic classic, Arpege, but said the drydown “was different, somewhat synthetic,” and that neither they nor the Barney’s salespeople seemed particularly impressed by the scent. A fourth commentator, “Fillifelle,” wrote, in part, that Superstitious started off on her “with a fresh clean laundry vibe” that was
almost like a white musk effect. [….] I was expecting a dark, sombre scent but got something that mimics an out-of-shower experience. Like you just had the Mother of all baths and emerged spanking fresh and smelling like the epitome of genteel cleanliness. Later stages feature more of a floral sweetness coming from a subtle but elegant peach note. […] It is tempered well with a soft Jasmine and amber base, never becoming too prominent or vulgar. Instead the whole composition is attractive, decorous and ladylike. Just not worth the price tag though.
The “Mother of all baths” and “an out-of-shower” experience sound absolutely dreadful to me but, frankly, I’m not that surprised. It’s Ropion’s bloody white musk that he clings onto so closely that it as well be one of his limbs at this point, and the way he chucks it into fragrances willy nilly. I was lucky in being spared most of the deluge during the first 2 hours and the other notes had a chance to shine through as a result, but Superstitious was a rose version of the “Mother of all baths” on my parents right from the start.
Superstitious was also various forms of soap on another Fragrantica poster, “Tapinview” who thought this was actually a very positive thing:
This is a superb post modern interpretation of the aldehyde Jasmine incense floral. Yet, it’s not retro in a fuggy way; it pops and fizzes with a fresh and yes, very ‘soapy’ cleanliness that is truly unique. There is another great review below that talks about soap and vintage, yet expresses that it is not like any ‘vintage’ we know. Yes, it’s so evocative at the same time. I am reminded of having a shower in our ‘bush shower’ on the farm, supposedly reserved for the men working and getting too filthy to wash up inside the house….there would always be a cracked and frazzled sliver of unscented yellow soap in the wire holder….this glorious frag put me right back in that shower under the rainwater tanks on our Eden farm. This incredible top and middle fades to a fairly quiet perfume after a few hours, but retains the hard yellow, UNSCENTED soap reference all the way. This is a glorious fragrance and a real masterpiece. It makes me so happy that artists and visionaries are still at work in fragrance.
Reading that, I think I experienced an entirely different scent altogether, and, honestly, I’m quite relieved because I think my version was far more interesting and complex than various forms of scented and unscented soap in an Australian bush shower. More and more, though, I realise that my experience with Superstitious may be anomalous. Or perhaps my nose and skin are simply different.
Whatever the reason, I think that Superstitious — more than some fragrances — is a fragrance that you better test first, and it is not something to buy blindly. And, in all candour, if you cannot stand any kind of aldehydes, soap, or clean musk, not even in the slightest form, then this may not even be worth sampling. On the other hand, if you love classical floral aldehydic fragrances like vintage Rive Gauche or vintage Caleche (in their early formulations), or if you believe expensive floral soap and clean musk are positive aromas in a scent, then you should rush to order a sample of Superstitious because you’re bound to love it.
For me, it’s a pass, although I shall remember my first few hours with Superstitious positively. If Monsieur Malle were to do a truly vintage-style, “grand” fragrance, from top to bottom, then I would be the first to beat down the doors to try it because the love, appreciation, and knowledge are so clearly there. Next time, perhaps.
Disclosure: My sample was provided by Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.