Perfume Review: Dries Van Noten Par Frederic Malle

Snickerdoodles! That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the new perfume, Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle (often shortened to just “Dries Van Noten”), from the the luxury fragrance house Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. It is one of the most respected haute-niche lines in the world and was founded in 2000 by Frederic Malle, a man who has luxury perfume in his blood. His grandfather founded Christian Dior Perfumes, and his mother later worked as an Art Director for the same perfume house. 

Dries Van Noten (left) with Frederic Malle (right).

Dries Van Noten (left) with Frederic Malle (right).

Recently, Mr. Malle decided to shift his focus from collaborating with perfumers to working with fashion designers. The first designer he chose for this new line would be Dries Van Noten whose eponymous fragrance was created by Bruno Jovanovic and released in early March 2013. According to Grain de Musc, the perfume is Malle’s own loose interpretation of Dries Van Noten’s aesthetic and not the designer’s own creation as rendered by Bruno Jovanovic. In other words, inspired by — not “made by” — Dries Van Noten. The Frederic Malle website supports that conclusion in its concise description of the scent:

Small sized bottle of Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle.

Small sized bottle of Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle.

A perfume built around natural sandalwood, chosen for its softness and its character, and the fact that it is simultaneously exotic and evocative of the tradition of great classic perfumes. This very short formula made of very precious materials, generates a sober but distinct sensuality. It is, in my eyes, a fair parallel to Dries van Noten’s world.

Fragrantica categorizes Dries Van Noten Par Frederic Malle as a woody Oriental and lists its notes as follows:

sandalwood, guaiac wood, tonka bean, vanilla, saffron, jasmine, musk, bergamot, lemon, nutmeg, cloves, patchouli, woody notes and peru balsam.

Source: Fragrantica

Source: Fragrantica

There was a lot of fuss in the blogosphere about the perfume not only because it was a departure from Malle’s traditional focus but, also, because Dries van Noten involved the use of sustainable Mysore sandalwood. As the Perfume Shrine explained back in January,

it’s also an innovation on the formula front, as the new Malle perfume is touted to be inclusive of a new, natural Indian sandalwood from a sustainable source. Indian sandalwood, for those who didn’t know, had essentially been eradicated from perfumery in the last 20 years or so, due to concerns and regulations on the sustainability of the Mysore sandalwood. The news therefore is a leap of hope for the industry in general and sure to create a real peak of interest in the heart of every perfume fan out there.

Large-sized 3.4 oz bottle.

Large-sized 3.4 oz bottle.

All that is absolutely wonderful, particularly for those (like myself) who adore true Mysore sandalwood, but sandalwood isn’t at the heart of this perfume. No, it’s cookies. To be very specific, the American cookie (or “biscuit,” as the British term it) called “Snickerdoodles.” Americans will know immediately the precise smell which that name invokes but, for others, here is a brief summation from Wikipedia:

snickerdoodle is a type of cookie made with butter or oil, sugar, and flour rolled in cinnamon sugar. Eggs may also sometimes be used as an ingredient, with cream of tartar and baking soda added to leaven the dough. Snickerdoodles are characterized by a cracked surface and can be crisp or soft depending on preference.

Snickerdoodles are often referred to as “sugar cookies”. However, traditional sugar cookies are often rolled in white sugar whereas snickerdoodles are rolled in a mixture of white sugar and cinnamon.

SnickerdoodlesThe thick, yellow-brown, very buttery, very doughy, cinnamon-sugar cookie is exactly what Dries van Noten smells like — only with nutmeg replacing the cinnamon. The opening on my skin is as simple as that, though there is a definite subtext of flour that sometimes verges into the raw dough batter territory. There are creamy, milky notes, both of vanilla and something resembling almonds at times. The whole thing is wrapped up in a cloud of nutmeg, dancing around like the sugar spice fairy. It’s never bitter or pungent, but, instead, sweetened. The sandalwood is similarly sugared, and seems nothing like vintage or real Mysore sandalwood. There is a definite creamy fluffiness to the scent which is surprisingly light in feel. It’s almost as if the sometimes heavy, doughy sugar cookies have been turned into gauzy air.

About ten minutes in, woody notes start to appear — light, white, and quietly smoky. The notes add a dryness to the scent and ensure that the perfume is never cloying, excessively sweet, or cheap-smelling. As time passes, but especially at the thirty minute benchmark, the woods start to turn much smokier. The guaiac wood is starting to make itself noticed with its strong note of burning leaves or burning paper. I love the smell in its more unusual twist on traditional “smoke,” especially as it’s never acrid, sharp or bitter. I think it adds a much-needed dryness to the extremely sweet, fluffy cookie-aspect of the fragrance.

There is also the start of a faint muskiness from the jasmine. The latter is not perceptible as a floral note, in and of itself, at first. It’s far from indolic, heavy, or sour, so those who fear the note need not worry. But the jasmine gives rise to something very puzzling: one part of my arm starts to smell almost solely of sweet, slightly musky jasmine, while the rest of it smells of snickerdoodles, smoking paper, nutmeg and vanilla. It’s as though there is a No Man’s Land inlet of territory where the jasmine is evident, but nowhere else. And it remains that way for a good two hours. No blending, no merging, no jasmine elsewhere — ever. I find it the oddest thing!

For the next six hours, the majority of my arm (minus that one No Man’s Land) smells of Snickerdoodles to varying degrees, but with small subtexts of other notes. At first, the nutmeg is much more pronounced; then it becomes the guaiac and other wood tonalities; after a while, it’s the dough and flour which become the main subtext; and, then, vanilla and sandalwood. But the core essence of nutmeg sugarcookie never changes. At first, I find it delightful and cozy, and then, frankly, I become very  tired and bored of it.

Snickerdoodle dough. Source:

Snickerdoodle dough. Source:

By the time the creamy (but definitely sweetened) sandalwood rolls around, the linearity has driven me a little mad. Particularly as the final dry-down is still mostly flour, yeasty dough, sugar and vanilla. To be fair, I’m not really one for food scents to begin with and, despite the early dry, woody and spiced elements, the needle definitely veers into the “gourmand” category here. Fragrantica can classify this as a “woody oriental” as much as they want; to me, sugar cookies=foody desserts=gourmand fragrances. Period.

I find the fragrance to be a surprising scent to come out of Frederic Malle. This is a lot more what I imagined Jo Malone’s recent “Sugar and Spice” collection to be like. Well, if it were, you know, actual fragrance that was both good, of high-quality, and long-lasting. (Yes, yes, I know, “Meow.”) As a whole, I think Dries Van Noten is not as distinctive as many of Malle’s usual fragrances are, and I suspect that is why a few people seem to have a slight tone of disappointment underlying their generally positive reviews. Or perhaps that is merely my interpretation of the initial test reactions on a Basenotes thread, along with Grain de Musc’s assessment of the perfume.

In Denyse Beaulieu’s case, she had originally expected a scent that evoked a Flemish vegetal garden, but found instead a “speculoos” cookie (which is, I am assuming, a Belgian version of a Snickerdoodle):

When I learned he was partnering with Frédéric Malle I immediately though of Van Noten’s 60-acre garden near Antwerp and envisioned a vegetal, unconventionally floral scent.  [¶] I envisioned a landscape instead of a portrait. Frédéric Malle headed straight for a warm, well-ordered Flemish interior with a plate of cookies. Dries Van Noten is a very delicate woody gourmand, folding a cinnamon and clove-sprinkled, vanillic speculoos cookie accord into milky-smoky Mysore sandalwood[i]. To conjure the toasted, nutty, yeasty cookie dough, Malle remembered that sulfurol, more commonly used in food aromas, was also resorted to by Grasse perfumers to boost sandalwood (the material was featured in the odd, yeasty-milkyLe Feu d’Issey). Patchouli coeur (i.e. divested of its musty/camphor notes), methyl ionone and musk set the blend between woody and cosmetic accords. Jasmine absolute is listed, but not legible per se to my nose; the patchouli is fairly prominent.

I don’t smell any patchouli, but the rest is dead on. Victoria at Bois de Jasmin seems to have had a completely experience from both of us, however, with much more floral notes:

Dries Van Noten’s perfume is smooth like melted chocolate and rich like whipped cream, but you won’t smell of Belgian waffles topped with cherries, or anything edible for that matter. The fragrance uses Indian sandalwood*, and it smells simply decadent–rosy, creamy, warm and opulent. Add to this a lush jasmine note, and I’m in Rajasthan, rather than Antwerp, but this is a wonderful fantasy in itself.

The sweetness of vanilla and toasted almond is balanced out by the citrus and earthy violet notes. The hint of something savory is an accent that shouldn’t work but does. The first impression of Dries Van Noten when I spray it on my skin is a classical oriental a la Guerlain Shalimar, where citrus is used to cool down the rich woods and vanilla. But as I wear it longer, it becomes more floral and musky. The perfume reminds me more of the violet tinged woods of Serge Lutens Bois de Violette than of caramelized sandalwoods like Lutens’s Santal de Mysore or Guerlain Samsara.

Violets? Hm. Not on my end. No Shalimar-like citrus, either. 

Where I do agree with both ladies is the extremely minimal projection of the perfume. However, there seems to be a little bit of a twist where that is concerned. At first, Denyse of Grain de Musc “found its sillage surprisingly introverted despite several spritzes.” Later, she discovered that maybe it vanished only to her own nose! And she wasn’t alone in that. As she explains:

After discussing Dries Van Noten with other French bloggers and perfume lovers who’d tested it, it seems that while the wearer stops being able to perceive the fragrance after a while except in whiffs, other people smell it quite well.
We agreed we’d noticed this occurring with a few sandalwood and iris accords (there is no iris in DVN but there are ionones) like Cartier L’Heure Promise, Tom Ford Santal Blush and Diptyque Volutes. Other people can smell them just fine on us while we feel the fragrance has all but vanished.
Could there be some type of anosmia or “de-sensitization” at play?

Victoria of Bois de Jasmin also found it had “minimal” projection, while some people on a perfume group I frequent have simply said that the scent vanished entirely after an incredibly brief period of time. In short, it’s definitely something to take into consideration, given the cost of the perfume, and to test it for yourself! 

The early consensus from those who’ve tried it is that Dries Van Noten is an incredibly cozy and comforting scent. I think that is very true, if you like gourmand fragrances. But those who aren’t so keen on smelling like food may not be that enamoured. It is one reason why I’m not a huge fan. Another is that I find both its sweetness and its linearity to be, ultimately, a bit too much for my personal tastes — especially for the price. The perfume starts at $185 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle, with the larger bottle retailing for $265. Even if you buy the set of 3 travel-sized minis, it’s still $125 to smell like a Snickerdoodle and yeasty, sugar dough.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that this will be an enormously popular fragrance, particularly amongst those who enjoy dessert scents with an occasional dry, woody undertone. The gushing I’ve already seen on some sites seems to support that. Plus, the light sillage and good longevity (about 9.5 hours on my perfume-consuming skin) make it ideal for those who want something airy, lightweight and cozy. It’s also suitable for the office, though I personally would not wear it in a very conservative work environment. (Can one be taken seriously if one smells of Snickerdoodles?) 

To mangle the famous quote from the great Judi Dench, “if cookies be your perfume of love… spray on.” 

Cost & Availability: As noted above, you can purchase Dries Van Noten in a variety of different forms and ways. On his website, Malle offers: 3 travel-sized sprays in a 10 ml size for $125; a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle for $185; or a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle for $265. You can also find the perfume at Barneys. In Canada, I’ve read that it is carried at Holt Renfrew, but Dries Van Noten is not listed amongs the few Malles shown on their website. In the UK, it is available at Liberty which sells the 50 ml size for £110.00 and the 100 ml bottle for £155.00. The three 10 ml travel-sized bottles are also available for £70.00. Elsewhere, you can use the Store Locator to find a location that carries the fragrance near you. If you want to test it out, I bought my sample at Surrender to Chance where prices start at $5.99 for a 1 ml vial.