Drugs and Nazis. That’s what comes to mind each and every time I wear Misia, the newest addition to Chanel’s higher-end, quasi-niche collection, Les Exclusifs. It may be an unfair conclusion, but it’s an inevitable one for me, thanks in large part to the history of the women behind the name “Misia.” The fact that Chanel itself has presented the scent as one that should be seen through the filter of those women doesn’t help. Frankly, I’m astounded that the company would choose an inspiration and story for its latest release that would risk unearthing the unpalatable background of Coco Chanel, a history that it hopes assiduously stays hidden. But it takes little effort to discover the unappealing side to the “special friendship” that is explicitly stated as the cornerstone for Misia’s creation, especially if one is to asked to interpret Misia through the lens of Coco herself. The connections are too negative for me and, ultimately, serve to ruin a decent fragrance.
Misia is an eau de toilette that was created by Olivier Polge, the son of Chanel’s in-house perfumer, Jacques Polge, and his successor. The fragrance was released in March 2015, and was inspired by Misia Sert, Coco Chanel’s close friend. Chanel’s French and Canadian website describes the scent and the underlying friendship as follows:
The spirit of art
Misia Sert and Coco Chanel shared a special friendship, a rare bond tinged with curiosity. This curiosity is even said to have cultivated Chanel’s taste for art and permeated every inch of it, providing Olivier Polge with whispers of inspiration for a new Exclusif. Misia or the makeup powder on dancers’ bodies. Misia or the May rose and violet scent of lipstick. Misia or leather-like odor that find full expression on the skin. Misia or the inspiration of a new fragrance.
I wish I could just quote you that description and move onto the notes, but I can’t, because I find so much about the background to this fragrance to be galling. So galling that I truly cannot move past it, so galling that I could not bear to write about Misia for the longest time. So, I’m sorry, I have to digress into the very personal reasons why before I can cover what the fragrance actually smells like.
As the perfume’s name and the description quoted above make abundantly clear, Chanel is paying actual, explicit homage to Misia Sert, and to the special, “rare” friendship between the two women. It is that friendship which is the key, because we’re being asked to see Misia (the scent and the woman) through the lens of Coco Chanel herself. We are not being asked to see Misia Sert as who she was separately, a woman who was a seemingly positive symbol. On the surface, at least. There, on that level, Misia Sert can be viewed as talented, influential woman: a pianist, a patron of the arts, and a muse to famous painters, musicians, and writers.
We’re being asked to see Misia, both the woman and the actual fragrance, through the lens of the special relationship with Coco, and that is something which I find to be baffling, peculiar, and filled with negative associations. In many books or articles, Misia Sert is described as some sort of soul sister to Coco Chanel — and many longstanding readers know my feelings about the utterly repellent, completely heinous, parasitic, amoral, pretense of a human being that was Coco Chanel. As my piece linked there makes clear, she went beyond being a raging anti-Semite and social climber — beyond even being a Nazi collaborator — to being an actual Nazi agent who met with Hitler’s legendary spymaster in Berlin, one who sold out people to their deaths, who tried to use Nazi anti-Jewish laws to steal her Jewish partners’ share, and someone who wined and dined (and slept with) Nazis, drinking champagne as her countrymen starved, only to turn around when the tide had turned during the Allied liberation to run after American soldiers to peddle her wares, before she finally fled to Switzerland with her Gestapo spy lover to avoid the consequences of her treason. And it was treason. Coco Chanel was a traitor to France by every legal standard around. Had she been poor and unknown, she would have been hanged from a street lamp after the war or put against the wall and shot, as she so justly deserved.
As for that “special friendship” with Misia Sert that Chanel talks about, it was “special” indeed. Misia was allegedly Coco’s lover at times and, provably, unquestionably, her fellow morphine user, both so addicted that they shot up several times a day. This is not a woman who engaged in occasional recreational drug use with a mere puff of pot. Misia Sert was such an addict of hardcore opiates that she didn’t even bother to wait to find a vein but would inject herself straight through her clothes. (See, Clive James, Misia and All Paris.) A Newsweek piece on Madame Sert notes that, “Late in life, going blind and addicted to morphine, Misia made drug runs to Switzerland with Chanel, the last brilliant tyrant she loved.” Hal Vaughan in his exposé on Coco Chanel called Sleeping with the Enemy describes her as Chanel’s “soul sister,” (p.109), and it was to Misia that Coco confides her plans involving her Gestapo lover, von Dincklage, and the new Aryanization laws. As Vaughan states, “with the Nazis in power [Coco] hoped to gain control of the firm… an Aryanized Chanel No. 5 perfume company. The rewards to her would be immeasurable.” (p.169.) In fairness, Misia’s biographers claim she wasn’t anti-Semitic, which is one area where she differed from the loathsome Coco, but somehow the negative associations remain in my mind and totally taint the scent for me. It doesn’t help that Misia’s time during the Occupation seems to have been the nonchalant, easy continuation of her earlier life, one big long party, where she hung out with collaborators without issue.
So, for me, the actual background to the Chanel perfume is not the usual situation involving some silly PR copy whose whimsical drivel is over-the-top. Nor is it some completely trivial, wholly imaginary story. This is an actual homage to Coco’s drugged-out, junkie soul sister, not her total antithesis or her sainted counterpart. It’s the woman Coco felt indelibly intertwined with on every level, as though they were identical spirits or twins. A twin to one of the most wretched women around, the two bonded together through their shared, rampant drug use.
I simply cannot move past all that. In fact, I’m mentally stuck at this point, my mind utterly unable to comprehend the details in a way that has never happened to me before with Chanel scents. I love, own, and wear Coromandel, which is an innocuous tribute to the Chinese lacquer screens that Coco loved. In point of fact, I have no issues with people buying anything from the company as a whole, since Chanel is Jewish-owned and has been in its entirety since the 1970s. But paying tribute to Misia Sert, the woman Coco would shoot up with? What’s next, an Exclusif for men called “Hans Günther” or “von Dincklage”? How about naming the next one “Abwehr,” for the Nazi military intelligence spy agency that employed her? Or “Bendor,” for the infamous, raging anti-Semite, pro-Nazi duke that she had a long relationship with? Misia Sert, indeed. Pah.
What on earth was the company thinking in going this route??! I can’t understand it. The billionaire Wertheimer brothers who now own the company usually take such care to avoid anything that could possibly, tangentially, potentially bring up their founder’s wretched vileness. But, with Misia, they’ve opened a can of worms and I, for one, wouldn’t want to spend $160 or $280 on a perfume that constantly makes me think of junkies and Nazis.
I truly apologise to you for starting the review on this tack, but I hope you can see that my difficulty is genuine, so I couldn’t just mention the issue as a passing footnote at the end. I will do my best not to discuss either woman further, to the extent it is possible.
violet, iris, orris root, Turkish rose, rose from Grasse, benzoin and tonka bean
Misia opens on my skin with iris that is cool and slightly stone-like, but also impressively buttery. It is laced with a demure rose that is barely sweetened, smudged at the corners with a green violet, and then dusted with the very smallest touch of a sweetened powder that feels identical to heliotrope. The latter gives an underlying “clean baby” whiff and an occasional cleanness that I hesitate to compare to scented baby powder, but it is somewhere in that vicinity.
To my surprise and great relief, there is none of the usual Chanel floral-aldehydic accord that marks so many of the brand’s fragrances. There is also nothing “bathtastic” about Misia’s opening and only once in a blue moon is there a floral hairspray undertone. Instead, Misia has more of a naturalistic cleanness, like skin after a shower that has been turned silky with iris/orris butter, then dusted with heliotrope powder. It’s a largely uncomplicated, feminine, floral scent that feels fluffy, youthful (but not “young girl”) but, also, simultaneously, elegant, sophisticated, and highly polished as well.
Misia differs from some Chanel’s fragrances in another way: it doesn’t scream cold hauteur, and the scent never keeps you at a reserved distance. It’s not merely due to the absence of the aldehydes that are such a signature of the brand, nor even the greenness that characterizes some of the other scents like Chanel No. 19 or Bel Respiro, for example. Rather, I think Olivier Polge has taken enormous care to ensure that the iris never skews too stony or cool. It is certainly never musty or rooty; this is not an iris that would ever evoke the dark, dank, earthy depths of a crypt or frozen, iced vodka like Serge Lutens‘ futuristic Iris Silver Mist.
This is a softer, gentler, fluffy iris that initially feels as though it were painted in Impressionist watercolours before it turns warm and plush 90 minutes into the perfume’s development. At that point, the sweetened warmth from the benzoin resin and the tonka wash over the flower’s petals, turning them creamy and buttery in a way that is really nice, even for a non-iris lover like myself.
The iris may lie at the heart of Misia, but it is never alone. The violet weaves in and out, sometimes smelling exceedingly strong, sometimes merely dancing around the edges like a supplicant. The rose hangs back, quieter and more muted as the perfume develops. From the 2nd hour onwards, it is more of a shimmering whisper on my skin, an echo that hovers in the air rather than a solid, powerful, heavy note.
Misia continually took unexpected turns as it developed. I had expected a bathtastic, soapy, aldehydic bouquet that would turn into pure lipstick and makeup, but that doesn’t really happen. In fact, I’m surprised by how little Misia evokes makeup, or the classical lipstick/powder accord that is usually triggered by an iris, orris, violet mix. This is definitely a scent with powder, but it is more akin to the sort created by heliotrope with warm, tonka-benzoin sweetness more than anything overtly, loudly, heavily make-up oriented.
In that way, Misia differs from Malle‘s Lipstick Rose, despite sharing many similar notes. On me, Misia is significantly more iris-centric than the Malle; it’s not heavily dominated by the roses; and the violet smudges it with a touch of greenness, instead of lipstick like the Malle. Misia is also not screechingly synthetic like the Malle, has a very balanced degree of white musk, is softer in projection as a result, feels smoother and creamier in body, and is altogether substantially better in quality, in my opinion.
Misia shifts in fractional degrees, changing so slowly and minutely that it takes a few hours before one notices different nuances. Roughly 2.5 hours in, the scent is primarily buttery iris cream laced with a violet that is green but also, now, a little woody. The fragile rose continues to be wrapped around it, as thin and translucent as gossamer cobwebs. The whole thing is dusted with sweetened powder, then nestled within a fluffy, pillowy cocoon that evokes the gentle, soothing traits of heliotrope.
However, now, there are also passing, occasional whiffs of something that distinctly smelt like Pond’s Cold Cream to me. It’s as though the iris’ innate coolness had not only bloomed, but had been supplemented by a definite dash of waxy, fat aldehydes. The result isn’t soapy or “bathtastic, per se, but definitely like the thick, facial cleansing creams of old. By the end of the 5th hour and the start of the 6th, the cold cream accord grows even more noticeable and constant. It’s overlaid with violets that are no longer green but floral, and as soft as pansy petals. The fragile rose continues to be a shy wallflower at the edges, barely fluttering in near muted silence.
The whole thing is creamy to the point where the perfume’s texture is as much a part of the scent as any actual note. To me, it’s the one thing that makes Misia stand out, because the actual bouquet itself is both simplistic and not particularly distinctive. If one were to take the most reductionist interpretation, Misia’s heart stage is essentially just cold cream iris and violet with miniscule curls of rose, sweetened powder, and clean musk.
Misia continues on this path for the next few hours, remaining a creamy floral with the slightest rose-ish tint and a quiet powderiness. The strands of woodiness fluctuate, but they’re never particularly strong or prominent on my skin. More noticeable is the way the powder finally starts to skew closer to the makeup territory, though it’s still not hardcore or anything evocative of the bottom of a makeup bag. It certainly isn’t a fuddy-duddy, old-time, “old lady” powderiness, but something significantly lighter, more modern, and more restrained. It is only the “Pond’s Cold Cream” note that feels a little old-fashioned to me, and that remains until the end of the 9th hour.
Misia’s drydown and final hours involve a greater change in focus. When the 10th hour rolls around, the “cold cream” note weakens and is replaced by a strong powderiness infused with sweetness. The orris root mixed with tonka and benzoin really resembles heliotrope to a remarkable degree, though it’s nothing at all like the powderiness of Oriza L. Legrand‘s Heliotrope Blanc. By the same token, the notes still don’t skew towards makeup powder; the scent is merely fluffier and more pillowy than before. For the most part, Misia is really just a bouquet of clean, powdered sweetness, kissed by a hushed breath of warmth. The fragrance remains that way until its very final hour when, to my surprise, Misia suddenly returns back to the orris butter, coating the skin in the thinnest smear of buttery, sweet cream.
Misia has moderate projection but excellent longevity for a mere eau de toilette. Using 3 smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with about 4 inches of projection that dropped to 2 at the end of the first hour. The scent hovered just above the skin at the 3.25 hour mark, but only turned into a skin scent after the 4th hour. It wasn’t hard to detect up close for a while. In total, Misia lasted 11 hours on me, which is unusual for an eau de toilette on my wonky skin, but I’ve found that Chanel’s Exclusifs often last longer than many eau de parfums.
Almost everyone who tries Misia seems to think that it is well done, elegant, with occasional, evocative hints of the vintage past, but not overtly girly or frilly in nature. On Fragrantica and elsewhere, a number of people find the scent to be primarily like makeup and lipstick, while others detect a woodier, drier, restrained iris. For a few, Misia is about sugary or candied violets with cosmetic powder; for others, there are a lot of aldehydes. Not a lot of people find the rose to be the dominant floral, but comparisons to Malle’s Lipstick Rose are frequent.
What I’ve noticed is that people’s reaction to Misia is not predicated so much on their gender (that would be obvious for a scent like this), but on their expectations involving the lipstick/makeup accord. The people who seem the most disappointed in Misia frequently seem to be those who had expected a significantly hardcore makeup/lipstick scent that skewed blazingly feminine.
That is not what they found, as evidenced by some of the Fragrantica comments and two reviews on Surrender to Chance. There, one person doesn’t find Misia to be sufficiently like the bottom of a grandmother’s makeup bag, while a second thought it was unisex (too unisex for her tastes), and musky. Personally, I don’t think Misia is supposed to be such an extreme or on-the-nose replication of makeup or lipstick. I certainly don’t think it’s meant to be unquestionably and supremely feminine in nature but, rather, slightly closer to the unisex side. Obviously, just how feminine or unisex it will be to you will depend on your personal tastes, and how you interpret the notes as they manifest themselves on your skin.
For my friend, The Non-Blonde, Misia the perfume was pretty and with perfect proportions, but something about it felt both unisex and austere, different from the pillowy, feminine voluptuousness of Misia Sert herself. Her review reads, in small part, as follows:
Crisp, clipped, linear, and determined, like a 1920s bobbed haircut. Misia delivers exact doses of iris and violets that walk the line between soap and powder, nostalgia and modern minimalism, Chanel and Guerlain.
Misia is also very pretty. Not wistfully or heartbreakingly so, but pure and simple in its perfect proportions. The balance is kept so accurately that despite the turn towards the vintage dressing table through the powdery makeup vibe, Misia is still not overly feminine. It has the same gender-free appeal as Prada Infusion d’Iris: clean, approachable, a good office-mate kind of a thing. […][¶] Chanel’s Misia has something austere about it [….] Also, it lacks a certain playfulness, but that’s probably what makes Misia so easy to pull off on any given day. It’s there, it smells good, it’s reliable. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
For two male bloggers, The Scented Hound and Colognoisseur, Misia was also dominated by a lipstick/makeup accord with a vintage vibe, but they detected a thin sliver of leather underlying it in the base. For The Hound, Misia was a “pretty powder puff of violet and iris…but not overly pretty, you can’t accuse Misia of being too girly-girl,” thereby echoing other comments that the scent is not gushingly, excessively feminine in nature. Again, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on what you would like Misia to be.
I actually liked Misia a lot more than I thought I would. In general, I’m not really an iris person and Chanel’s aldehyde-heavy, cool aesthetic is far removed from my own tastes, making it a brand that I avoid for olfactory reasons. Yet, there were times in the first few hours of Misia when I thought it was a scent I wouldn’t mind wearing for myself if a free bottle ever fell into my lap and if the women explicitly, intentionally linked to the scent didn’t have such strong, negative associations in my mind. On a purely technical basis, Misia is done very, very well, demonstrating a masterful balance in the notes and in the scent’s overall vibe that impressed me. If only it were about something innocuous, like a number or chinese screen, instead of something that brings back in waves all my feelings about Coco Chanel. I’m sorry, I simply can’t move past all that; I spent far too many years of my life studying the Nazis and the SS. But even without that, I don’t want to wear a scent that constantly conjures up images of two junkies shooting up.
I’m sure the vast majority of you won’t be burdened with the same issues, so if iris and lipstick/makeup bouquets are your thing, then give Misia a sniff.