Review En Bref: Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady



The Purple Rose of Cairo. The old movie title seems like the best description for a much beloved perfume where the rose is purple from patchouli and dark berries, and Cairo represents the strong backbone of incense smoke. The perfume is Portrait of a Lady (often shortened to just “PoaL“), an eau de parfum from the luxury fragrance house, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Portrait of a Lady was created by Dominique Ropion, one of the most well-respected, famous noses around, and was released in 2010. The Frederic Malle website describes the fragrance as:

Source: Basenotes

Source: Basenotes

a new breed of oriental rose, a baroque perfume. It is based on an accord of benzoin, cinnamon, sandalwood and, above all patchouli, musk and frankincense. It takes off with an excessive dosage of the best Turkish rose essence that Dominique Ropion linked to the rest of the formula, thanks to a red berries and spice accord. After hundreds of trials needed to balance such an excessive formula (Portrait of a Lady is undoubtedly the perfume containing the strongest dosage of rose essence and patchouli heart), a rare symphonic perfume appeared:  a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic:  Portrait of a Lady.

Fragrantica classifies the fragrance as a floral Oriental, and lists its notes as follows:

Turkish rose, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, incense, ambroxan, benzoin and white musk.

"Bleeding Rose" by April Koehler. Source:

“Bleeding Rose” by April Koehler. Source:

Portrait of a Lady opens on my skin with the familiar strains of a jammy rose. It is intensely fruited with raspberries that feel almost candied and syrupy, along with a hint of tart, juicy cassis (otherwise known as black currant). The flower is full-bodied, rich, infused with patchouli to its core, and as dark as the finest wine, but it is also set on fire with dry, smoky incense. The flower actually feels so thick with dark, purple patchouli that it evokes images of crimson blood dripping into dry, arid Arabian sands that have been swirled into a storm of incense. Whispers of clove add a subtle spiciness and, in conjunction with the dry smoke, help ensure that Portrait of a Lady is never cloyingly sweet. 

Spirit of a Dying Rose by Vincent Knaus via

Spirit of a Dying Rose by Vincent Knaus via

At its core, Portrait of a Lady is a simple fragrance of rose supported by twin pillars of patchouli and smoke. And it never really changes from that essential characteristic. The notes may vary in prominence or strength, and the background elements certainly become less noticeable as time goes by, but Portrait of a Lady can really be summed up as nothing more than fruited, jammy, patchouli rose infused with dry incense. It’s a well-done triptych of notes that eventually turns into a bipartisan interplay of incense and patchouli, but that’s really about it.

Portrait of a Lady has been largely imitated by many similar, jammy, incense purple rose fragrances since then, but it really doesn’t knock my socks off. So, I’ll spare you the lengthy, moment-by-moment analysis of how minimal the clove is on my skin, how long the raspberry lasts in an additional surfeit of fruitedness that I did not enjoy, or how it ends up creating a sour note that lingers well into the perfume’s final moments. I’ll avoid getting into the details of just how much purple patchouli there is in Portrait of a Lady, how it becomes a skin scent on me less than 3.75 hours into the perfume’s development, how there are subtle elements of something synthetic in the base (perhaps thanks to the Ambroxan), or the way there is a weirdly soapy tinge to the fragrance for a few hours.

purple smokeThe simple nutshell story is that, on me, Portrait of a Lady started as a conventional jammy rose with incense and endless heapings of purple, purple, purple, fruited patchouli. I really dislike purple patchouli, and there is a hell of a lot of it here. Portrait of a Lady then took less than 4 hours to turn into a somewhat dry, very subdued, completely muted blur of simple patchouli and incense with an endlessly lingering, unpleasant hint of sourness before it finally died away. It’s a fragrance that lasted just over 9.25 hours on me, and that I found to be tolerably nice. It was also, however, unoriginal, linear, painfully purple and fruited, and wholly boring. I certainly don’t think it’s worth the high Malle prices.

However, I’m hugely in the minority on my lack of enthusiasm for Portrait of a Lady. The fragrance is much adored; in fact, it is many people’s ideal, perfect rose. Some even consider it to be a “naughty” rose, an impression or association that never once crossed my mind. In truth, I am starting to think that Frederic Malle is a brand that simply doesn’t do much for me; thus far, I haven’t been impressed by a single one that I’ve tried. So, I shall put on my “Cone of Shame” (to borrow an apt, recent phrase from Lucas of Chemist in a Bottle), and slink to my corner. Mea culpa.  

Cost & Availability: Portrait of a Lady (PoaL) is an eau de parfum that comes in a variety of different forms and sizes. On his U.S. website, Malle offers: 3 travel-sized sprays that are each 10 ml in size for $150; a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle for $230; or a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle for $340. It seems as though the 50 ml size is available only from the US Malle website, as no other vendors, including even the French or International Malle website, carries that small bottle. On the International Malle website, the prices are €100 for the travel trio, and €225 for the large 100 ml bottle. I’m afraid there is a web-error page for the small 50 ml size, so I can’t see its Euro price, and oddly, PoaL doesn’t even appear on this page with all the other 50 ml/1.7 oz bottles. Malle also sells a 200 ml body cream on each website which costs $210. In the U.S.: You can also find Portrait of a Lady at Barneys in all sizes, except the small 1.7 oz, $230 bottle. You’re essentially stuck ordering from the Malle website if you’re looking for that. Outside the U.S.: In Canada, Portrait of a Lady is exclusive to Holt Renfrew, which sells the large 100 ml bottle for CAD $370. In the UK, it is available at Liberty which sells the mini, travel trios for £90.00 and the 100 ml bottle for £200.00. For all other countries, you can use the Store Locator to find a location that carries the fragrance near you. Samples: I received my sample from a friend but you can always order from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $8.99 for a 1 ml vial.

53 thoughts on “Review En Bref: Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady

  1. Hmmm…I was SURE you would love this one. I certainly do!

    I’ve probably sampled 10 fragrances in search of a suitably masculine summer rose, and PoaL was the clear winner. My skin is similar to your in its “Shamwowedness,” but I somehow got 10 hours of good projection out of this fragrance.

    That being said, the price tag is a major deterrent. $230 for a 50 ml bottle?

    I ended up “settling” for a bottle of vintage Egoiste I found on eBay for a scant $70!

    • I think perhaps I have less tolerance for purple patchouli than most. I love patchouli, but the fruited, purple kind is really a strong turn-off for me. So many fragrances use it to add jamminess to the floral aspect, too, and it’s so consistently mixed with roses, that I’m a little fed up with it at this point. But the real thing is that I really dislike purple patchouli. I know most people don’t, so I realise I’m in a minority on that point. 🙂

      That said, I’m glad you enjoyed the fragrance, but I think you did much, MUCH better going with vintage Egoiste! Great price, too, Mi’lord. 😉 🙂

      • I’ve had some incredible luck recently with vintage fragrances. Aside from the Egoiste, I managed to pick up an original vintage Paco Rabanne for $30(!), an original vintage Equipage for $35, an original vintage Versace L’Homme for $38, and a vintage Drakkar Noir for $25. Also got a 40% full tester of Jubilation XXV for $60.

        Yeah…I’m lovin life!

        • Nice!! Nothing better than a really good deal and bargain. It’s almost better than the actual product that you’re buying. lol

  2. I love Portrait of a Lady and get tons of compliments whenever I wear it. Too bad you didn’t like it but, on the other hand, money saved – right? 😉

    • Definitely money saved. My main thought, though, was: “my winning streak just got broken.” 😉 I knew you loved this one, so my feelings on it clearly mark the end of that weird synchronicity in the space-time continuum where we agreed on 4 perfumes in a row. 😛

  3. I had very high expectations about PoaL but it didn’t work for me: all I got was bone dry patchouli with oud (no roses, no berries) that lasted for days. Of course lasting power is always great with the fragrances one doesn’t like.

    • I’m really surprised by the number of people who didn’t enjoy or like PoaL here. Really surprised. And, yes, of course the perfumes that one hates last forever (and ever, and ever….). *sigh* It’s like some sort of revenge by the cruel perfume gods.

    • Good heavens, you too?! PoaL may not be the sure-fire favorite that I had thought it was. So many people seem to gush about it with love and adoration, so I thought I’d be stoned alive for my views. I’m glad to hear that you experienced sourness, too, and that it wasn’t just me.

  4. I do love Portrait of a Lady which is all jammy rose and incense on me. But my favorite concentration of it is the body butter, which I think you might prefer too. It bypasses most of the purple patchouli and gets right down to the smoky nitty gritty. I might have a sample lying around. If so, I’ll earmark it for you.

    • I’m glad it works for you, darling. And thank you for your extremely generous offer of some of the body butter. It’s incredibly sweet and thoughtful of you. I fear, though, that it would be wholly wasted on me, even without the purple patchouli. Malle doesn’t seem to be a house that works for me. I’m just hoping that Musc Ravageur will be the one exception to break the rule.

    • Interesting that you didn’t like this one either. It seems to be a growing crowd around here. As for Lyric Man, it sounds like you experienced a lot of rose. Alas, on me, it was extremely muted and hidden.

  5. I wasn’t wowed by this one either. I had a sample, tried it, gave it away. Recently I was given another sample. I’ll try it again but I remember it didn’t last long and I didn’t swoon like most seem to. It’s not my perfect rose. I wanted to swoon like everyone else but all I could muster up was to think its pretty. Well, that and the fact that I just wasted $8 on one tiny little vial of a sample. I see it’s now $9 so that makes me feel better. I will try it again because I think my expectations were too high for it and maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot.

    • Good lord, seems that the majority of people here didn’t like PoaL at all! Interesting. Now I’m going to be curious to see what happens when you try it again. (And let’s not start on the ridiculous cost of a tiny sample vial of *any* of Malle’s perfumes! Sheeesh.)

      • Partially the secret might be in expectations and money spent. I knew nothing about PoaL when I first sniffed it (for free!) at the store. Many other FM’s perfumes that I tried later, after reading all possible accolades, didn’t impress me much (especially for the price). But PoaL and Irid Poudre, both of which I “discovered” on my own, I like a lot.

        I noticed that in many cases I have better reaction to a perfume if I just come accross it or get an unexpected sample than when I have a horde of lemmings swirming from my expectations and other people’s reviews.

  6. Haha! I haven’t tried Portrait of a Lady yet, as well as many other Frederic Malle fragrances. What I tried – I didn’t find special and worth the price tag.

    Hugs sweetie, I’m gonna miss you

  7. I didn’t love PoaL, which was a bit oud-y as well as incense-y on me, though I am not sure there is any actual oud in it. Not really my thing either, but it certainly didn’t become a skin scent at any point, hehe! Maybe I am confusing the patchouli with oud, but it was bone dry whatever it was. 😉

    • It “certainly didn’t become a skin scent at any point”? LOL. So, it basically lasted on you until this very moment then, and is still going? 😉 Teasing aside, I can’t see this being your thing, whether it was the version I got or the one you experienced. But I must say, I’m really surprised by how many people didn’t love it. I didn’t expect that at all.

  8. I am almost certain I’ve tried this and didn’t think much of it either. Although I *did* revisit Lipstick Rose a week or so ago. The opening is still horrific, but the later stages are less repulsive than I remember. I realize that’s not exactly high praise, but still. Why I revisited it, I don’t know, but I guess it was a slight relief I didn’t hate it quite as much. I think I’m more or less done with Frederic Malle stuff. Or at least I won’t ever buy samples of it. I suppose I wouldn’t mind trying some from a swap, though.

    P.S. I know I owe you a sample of Musc Ravageur (I think it’s probably the most interesting and worthy FM I’ve smelled), but I still need to go through my crap to find it! If you saw the state of my samples…sigh. I owe several people things at this point, but it’s sometimes hard to make the time – perhaps this weekend is my lucky weekend. Actually, it should be, as I promised a friend a bunch of decants for her birthday and her birthday is a week from tomorrow so I don’t have much of a choice to put it off any longer. LOL. 🙂

    • No worries about the Musc Ravageur, Kevin. I obtained a sample, thanks to the kindness of Baconbiscuit. 🙂 As for PoaL, the fact that you can’t remember much about it beyond unenthusiasm says quite a bit. lol. You went and retried Lipstick Rose???! My God, man, are you a glutton for punishment?!! Just thinking about that ghastly, ghastly, ghastly synthetic bomb makes me wince.

      • It was funny, I was talking to a friend (the one I’m planning to bombard with samples for her birthday) and she was talking about how she was going to Neiman Marcus/Saks/etc. sniffing and she got a sample of something absolutely terrible by FM. She couldn’t remember the name, but later sent me a picture message. Sure enough, it was Lipstick Rose. LOL.

        Glutton of punishment, perhaps – but I know my limits. I still haven’t retried Aoud Lime. 🙂

        • HAHAHAHA, I can’t believe it was Lipstick Rose — and yet, OF COURSE it was Lipstick Rose! 😀 It makes absolute, perfect sense. Plus, naturally, it’s the cosmic rule that someone who is just learning about perfumes and trying a new line will end up trying the absolute worst one. (Well, I haven’t tested L’Eau d’Hiver yet, so we’ll see if Lipstick Rose holds onto its title.)

          As for Montale’s Aoud Lime, hold that thought and we’ll talk about it later today…. 😉

  9. It didn’t blow my mind. Because my husband wears Geranium Pour Monsieur, PoAL is an easy recommendation. My favorite from their line is Noir Epices. The one that fascinates me is Une Fleur de Cassie. I’m not much of a rose person, but this one seems like a cross between Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection and L’Ombre dans l”Eau.

    • I’ve heard some great things about Noir Epices, Pearl Fingering. 🙂 And Une Fleur de Cassie sounds nice, too, especially with the mimosa.

  10. Dear Kafka
    Perhaps it is a brand thing… one knows that different noses work on different perfumes and that is no where made more plain than with Malle where the ‘artists’ name sits proudly on the bottle.
    But the role of the art director, again here more transparent than in other places, is surely growing more every day,
    They are fast becoming the Renaissance Princes and Grands Patrons of perfumery, or to draw an (almost contemporary analogy) as Peggy Guggenheim was to modern art so they are to matters olfactory.
    Anyway, musings aside, all of that was by way of saying that I do rather share M. Malle’s taste, not always, but quite often and Potrait Of A Lady is a case in point.
    On one level I agree that it is a simple scent, rose predominating over everything, but many of the other notes that are always mentioned seem to me to be renderings of the diversity inherent between the blooms of this surprisingly wide species.
    Being luck enough enough to have one of the world’s finest rose garden’s at The Regent;s Park at hand I have experienced how some roses can be smoky, some jammy, others have a hint of something that resembles amber and many are citric or soft fruit.
    So for me, Portrait Of A Lady is more ‘portrait of a family’ expressing the cornucopia of scents that I associate with England’s national flower.
    Truly, therefore, a flower garden of a fragrance.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • “Portrait of a family” — I love that. Absolutely beautiful and very eloquent!! I remember the rose gardens at Regent’s Park from when I lived in London, and you’re right about how they are the world’s finest. I can see how the fragrance would mean more to you, and be representative of so much more than a simple, singular rose. I also agree with you about the role of the Art Director in a perfume house. For me, I suspect that Malle’s art direction is better suited to someone with a different, more restrained, more elegant style of perfumery. I think Serge Lutens’ art direction fits me and my tastes better, as it has more oomph, drama, complexity, and edge. 🙂 But, I’m still holding out hope that I’ll find a Malle fragrance to love. 🙂

      • Dear Kafka
        There’s no denying that Lutens has an ‘ooomph’ and ‘drama’ with which only grand opera could hope to compete. I love his work too, in the main, but have a place in my heart for both.
        I’m sure you’ll find a Malle for you one day, though perhaps he hasn’t commissioned it quite yet!
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  11. K – I like this immensely not to quite the love stage. I really have to be in the mood to wear it and it is way to cloying for the summer months. Given that, it is a powerhouse and I have been a bit heavy handed with it before and have stunk up a room. But this is a great rose for men to wear besides the name. Of course, I’m so butch that I can pull anything off 🙂 xoxoxoxox Steve

    • Ha! So butch you can pull off anything…. more like so adorable and sweet, you could wear Tide and it would work on you! 😀 As for the PoaL, I can see you better in the Guerlain Rose Nacrée that you love so much, but I’m sure this one is a delight on your skin too. xoxoxo

      • Don’t mention Tide, it’s one of my most hated smells in the world!!! Yucccckkk. Gurlain Rose Nacree is so soft and lovely it is beautiful and I love it and actually you’re probably correct in the fact that I would wear it more often and throughout the full year. Maybe that means I need to go buy a bottle 🙂

  12. Hello dear Kafka, does it surprise you that this is one of my favorite fragrances. I do have to be very light-handed with this. I have not garnered the courage to wear this on a hot summer day but when I wore it in the winter, 1.5 spritzer lasted all day! BTW, while I have Internet access, I can’t check email so in case anyone reading this had emailed me, I am not ignoring you 🙂

  13. Pingback: Tauer Perfumes Une Rose Chyprée: Bewitching Opulence | Kafkaesque

  14. Pingback: Puredistance Black: Shades of Purple & Pink | Kafkaesque

  15. Pingback: Ex Idolo Thirty-Three | Kafkaesque

  16. Pingback: SHL 777 Rose de Petra: Desert Rose - Kafkaesque

  17. Pingback: Tom Ford Patchouli Absolu - Kafkaesque

  18. You may have tried the reformulation. For me it’s a watercolor of the original, which had more incense, eugenol, and tremendous character. The original also felt less synthetic.

      • I have both versions on my hands now. They are almost–but not quite– two different fragrances because the effects created by the missing ingredients really change the perfume’s character. The eugenol (and camphor, maybe something else I don’t know) envelop that patchouli rose ambroxan core with a kind of scintillating mystery, obscuring and revealing different facets at different times. It is distinctly a three dimensional woody rose as done by a European Symbolist and viewed late at night at a bohemian gathering of artists of note.

        The new version feels flat and thin to me, a little too green and slightly nauseating, what you may have termed sour. It’s a patchouli rose having lunch at the Grill in Beverly Hills. Still very radiant, however, as people could smell one drop from six feet away.

        • As I said in the other thread, you’re good with descriptions, and this one definitely conveys a very different fragrance than the hideously gooey, hideously fruitchouli-dominant, very commercial-feeling scent that I encountered.

          You know, it’s times like these that the impact of the EU restrictions really comes into sharp focus in a more immediate way. So many of the fragrances I love have a ton of eugenol, in addition to the more heavily restricted notes like oakmoss. Eugenol was such a significant part of my beloved HG Opium, but I try not to think too much of that vintage loss. I block it out as best as I can, because it’s a long-standing, old pain. With something modern like POAL, the damage you describe feels fresh, newer. I’m quite sad now, reading about how the perfume used to be, particularly as “a three dimensional woody rose as done by a European Symbolist and viewed late at night at a bohemian gathering of artists of note” sounds so much better than the perfume I encountered. The current POAL is not a scent that I have respect for, I’m sorry to say.

  19. Pingback: Favorite Florals: Listed by Flower - Kafkaesque

  20. Pingback: Stephane Humbert Lucas Harrods - Kafkaesque

  21. New to your site, I LOVE POAL on everyone else except me. What other scents would you recumbent that are a spicy rose?

  22. Hello

    Just a heads up that all frederic malla fragrances has increased in price. I just bought POAL and i really hope it hasnt been reformulated since the Estee Lauder acquisition. Does anyone notice a difference???

  23. Pingback: Frederic Malle Monsieur - Kafkaesque

  24. Pingback: Frederic Malle & Alber Elbaz Superstitious - Kafkaesque

  25. Pingback: A Guide To Vintage Parfum d'Hermès - Part II: EDTs, Parfum & Dating Bottles - Kafkaesque

  26. Thank you again for such a beautiful review of POAL. I love the perfume and was first introduced a few year back sprayed on a sample paper. I was still noticeable two days later and I totally fell in love with it and saved up for it. I agree that the body butter is also beautiful. I am just about to buy it again. what do you think about the hair mist (Carnal flower)? I also just ordered sample kit from JSP I love your review on that and I can’t wait to try them. Thank you again

    • I haven’t tried Carnal Flower hair mist. Carnal Flower doesn’t do anything for me. Hiram Green’s Moon Bloom is the best modern tuberose fragrance, in my opinion, and Dusita’s Mélodie de L’Amour is a great tuberose-white floral fragrance. I would recommend trying both of those if you are a tuberose lover.

Comments are closed.