One of my greatest icons and heroes in the artistic world was Yves St. Laurent. As a child, long before I knew the extent of all his accomplishments, he was an indirect part of my world through my fashionista mother, and I worshipped him. Thank to her, I spent hours at his Avenue Montaigne boutique, admiring the sleek clothes and the even sleeker women who bought them. I would marvel at the beauty of the African and Ethiopian models he used on the runways (he was the first fashion designer to really break the colour ceiling), and at how they loped with exquisite grace in highly structured clothes that often plunged down to their navels or that were slit up to their hips. There were the famous Helmut Newton photo shoots, the aesthetic focus on Morocco and Africa, the stunning power of Opium perfume, the creation of the safari jacket, and Le Smoking.
Above all else, and far before Opium became my personal holy grail, it was all about Le Smoking, Yves St. Laurent’s reinvention of the tuxedo jacket for women that oozed sexuality, sleek minimalism, and power. From Catherine Deneuve (Saint Laurent’s longtime muse) to Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, and many others, all the most iconic, famous women of the day clamoured for Le Smoking, often wearing it with nothing underneath. Today, when you see fashion mavens like Gwyneth Paltrow, Rihanna and others wearing a sleek tuxedo jacket and little else, it’s a direct nod to Yves Saint Laurent.
One reason why Le Smoking became as significant as it did is because the jacket exuded a powerful androgynous attitude, mixed with women asserting their sexuality in more traditionally masculine ways. What Caron‘s Tabac Blond sought to do for perfumery in the early 1920s, the Saint Laurent smoking jacket sought to do for fashion, amped up times a thousand with more overt sexualization. It was a fashion re-engineering of gender in a way that was completely revolutionary after the lingering impact of Dior’s New Look with its focus on hyper-femininity, and the hyper obviousness of the Courreges miniskirt. (As a side note, YSL was actually the head designer at Dior for a few years. He reached that lofty level at the mere age of 21; a mere two years later, he designed the wedding dress for Farah Diba, future Empress, for her marriage to the Shah of Iran. You can read more about his fascinating, complicated life on Wikipedia, if you are interested.)
Given my feelings about Saint Laurent, I was keenly interested when I heard that there was a perfume that paid tribute to Le Smoking. Nay, a whole collection of fragrances that were created in homage to Yves St. Laurent, from Le Smoking to my beloved Opium itself. It was the YSL Retrospective Collection from DSH Perfumes, an indie, artisanal American line out of Colorado.
DSH Perfumes was founded by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, and all its fragrances are her personal creation. In 2012, she collaborated with the Denver Art Museum which was holding an exhibit on Yves Saint Laurent’s long, storied career “as one of the greatest influencers in the world of fashion, culture and perfume.” Those are not my words, or hyperbole. Those are CaFleureBon‘s words, and they’re accurate because Saint Laurent really was that important. (To learn more about YSL and his “Gender Revolution,” you can watch a PBS video on the Denver Exhibit, or click on a photo gallery from the Denver Museum that is available at the bottom of the linked page.)
To that end, Ms. Hurwitz created 6 fragrances, each of which was an olfactory interpretation of some aspect of Yves Saint Laurent’s life. By a wonderful twist of fate, Ms. Hurwitz contacted me mere days after I was looking (for the umpteenth time) at her website. At the time, I had been too overwhelmed by all the tempting choices to make a selection, so I was grateful when Ms. Hurwitz offered to send me a number of her fragrances to test. I suspect that some of you might feel similarly at a loss to know what to choose, so I’m going to cover a number of her fragrances in a row.
Today’s focus is the very unisex, green chypre-tobacco eau de parfum called Le Smoking. Other planned reviews include her patchouli scent, Bodhi Sativa. And there is obviously no way this Opium fanatic would miss Ms. Hurwitz’s nod to, and reinvention of Opium, with her Euphorisme d’Opium. For the rest, I’m trying to decide between fragrances from her Egyptian collection and her Persian one, as well as her botanical Vanilla and some of the spice scents.
As a side note, I have to say that Ms. Hurwitz is one of the sweetest people I’ve encountered in a while. The overwhelming impression is of gentleness, mixed with a lovely warmth. She is down-to-earth, open, understanding, gracious, and a lady to her very fingertips. None of that will impact my objectivity in reviewing the actual fragrances, but I did want to thank her. She never once blinked at my numerous requests for the specific notes in each fragrance (the full list is not provided on the website), and she seemed to actually appreciate my obsession with details. (That last one alone is rather remarkable.)
Speaking of notes, Ms. Hurwitz says some of the many ingredients in Le Smoking include:
Top: galbanum, bergamot, clary sage, hyacinth, blackberry;
Heart: grandiflorum jasmine, damascena rose absolute, orris co2 extract, carnation, geranium, marijuana accord, honey;
Base: blond tobacco absolute, incense notes, styrax, leather, peru balsam, green oakmoss absolute, ambergris, castoreum.
Le Smoking opens on my skin with a small blast of bitter greenness from galbanum and oakmoss. Both notes are infused with a lovely, dark, smoky incense, that is followed by a touch of marijuana. Now, I’ve never smoked marijuana, but I have occasionally been around people who do, so I’m somewhat familiar with the general aroma. To my untutored nose, the note in Le Smoking doesn’t smell exactly like smoked pot, because it lacks a certain pungency that I’ve detected (skunks!), but it’s not exactly like the unsmoked grassy version either. It’s a little bit sweet, earthy, green but also brown, and, later on, quite a bit like patchouli mixed with marijuana.
Mere seconds later, one of my favorite parts of Le Smoking arrives on scene. It’s tobacco drizzled with honey, intertwined with leather, all nestled in the plush, rich oakmoss. The greenness of Le Smoking softens quite quickly on my skin, leaving a fragrance that is increasingly dark and smoky. It’s flecked with sweetness, and has almost a chewy feel to it at times. On other occasions, the river of dark leather seems more dominant, especially once the styrax arrives. It also adds in a different form of smokiness that works beautifully with the deep oakmoss and that sometimes pungent galbanum that flitters about.
As a whole, Le Smoking doesn’t feel particularly green on my skin. Rather, it feels like a darkly balsamic fragrance centered around honeyed tobacco and incense that merely happens to have some galbanum and to be centered on an oakmoss base. Its darkness sometimes feels like a balsam resin that has been set on fire. On other occasions, however, the sweetness of the honey swirled into the tobacco dominates much more. Lurking in the background is that ganja accord which is sweet, woody, chewy, and green, all at once. It is subtle now, after its initial pop in the opening minutes, but it is increasingly taken on a patchouli like aroma.
It’s all terribly sexy, but it’s also quite masculine in feel. In fact, Le Smoking evokes so many “masculine” fragrances with their dark elements that I blinked the first time I tried it. I had had the vague impression that the perfume was a chypre for women. But, then, I remembered YSL’s gender-bending goal, and the actual Le Smoking of the past. Feminine as masculine, masculine as feminine, but always boldness and sexiness throughout. Well, mission accomplished, Ms. Hurwitz. And to think that I had initially dreaded this fragrance as some sort of potential galbanum green bomb! Not one bit.
Other elements start to stir. Initially, the bergamot and clary sage were nonexistent on my skin, but they slowly start to raise their heads after ten minutes to add a quiet whisper. The clary safe is more noticeable out of the two, adding a herbal touch that is just faintly like lavender with a touch of soap. It’s all very muted, however, unlike the carnation and geranium which are the next to arrive on scene. They add a peppered, spicy, and piquant edge, but the carnation has a clove-like undertone that works particularly well with the honeyed tobacco, leather, incense, and marijuana accords. Apart from the carnation, the other florals are very hard to detect on my skin, and the blackberry is nonexistent.
After 15 minutes, Le Smoking turns into a lovely bouquet of chewy, dark notes. The sweetness is perfectly balanced, and cuts through the smoky incense to ensure that the scent is never austere, stark, or brooding. The ganja’s earthiness melts beautifully into the clove-y note from the carnation, while the leather is now met by a slight muskiness that betrays the castoreum in the base. Galbanum and oakmoss provide a little green sharpness, while the minuscule flickers of clary sage add a tinge of herbal freshness in the background. Throughout it all, honeyed tobacco continues to radiate a dark sweetness that is intoxicating. Call me suggestive, but one of Yves St. Laurent’s plunging jackets really would be the perfect accompaniment to this scent.
I keep thinking about Tabac Blond, Caron’s gender-bending foray into leather and tobacco. It is such an enormously different perfume than Le Smoking, particularly in Tabac Blond’s current version. For one thing, the leather note smells fundamentally different in the Caron scent, as it stems from birch tar. Le Smoking’s leather does not. If anything, it is more of a subtle suggestion that is amplified by the castoreum in the base. Tabac Blond’s tobacco also smells extremely different than the version here, and is just a minor touch. In fact, Tabac Blond’s dominant focus on my skin seems to be the feminine traits of lipstick powder and florals, traits that only tangentially happen to have a masculine undertone on occasion. (The reformulated, modern Extrait is really a disappointment.)
With Le Smoking, the focus is almost entirely masculine, and all florals are subsumed so deep that they’re impossible to pull out. The carnation is the only one, and even then, it smells primarily of cloves instead of anything floral on my skin. The hyacinth, jasmine, and rose… they barely exist. At most, they are swirled into a very nebulous sense of something vaguely “floral” that lingers in the background in the most muted and muffled form. (And even that only lasts 15 minutes or so.) On me, Le Smoking is a thick layer of darkness dominated by tobacco, incense, sweetness, spice, earthiness and slightly animalic musk. The perfume feels more like something that would come out from Nasomatto (albeit, a non-aromachemical Nasomatto) than Caron, if that makes any sense. Tabac Blond, this is not.
The differences become even more stark after 30 minutes, as Le Smoking turns into a very different fragrance than what originally debuted. The patchouli-ganja element becomes more and more dominant, as does the castoreum. The latter is fantastic, feeling simultaneously musky, leathered, velvety, oily, dense, and a bit skanky. The two notes join the honeyed tobacco and the incense as the main players on Le Smoking’s catwalk.
In contrast, the suggestion of leather softens, the galbanum retreats completely to the sidelines, and the brief blip of clary sage dies away entirely. The oakmoss feels as though it has melted into the base where it adds an indirect touch to the top elements. For the next two hours, I thought on a number of occasions that it had actually died away, but the oakmoss waxes and wanes, sometimes popping up to add a wonderful green touch to the increasingly brown-and-black landscape.
The overall effect after 35 minutes is a scent that feels wonderfully dense, earthy, musky, spicy, smoky, and sweet, with light touches of oily skank, upon a plush, mossy base. Le Smoking lies right above the skin at this point with a graceful airiness that belies the concentrated richness of its notes. More and more, the ganja note pirouettes like patchouli in a mix of sweet, smoky earthiness, with spiciness from the “cloves” and a pinch of cinnamon (presumably from the styrax). There is even a vague sense of something chocolate-like lurking deep underneath its chewy facade. I have to say, I love all of it.
Other changes are afoot around the same time. At the end of the first hour, the tobacco turns darker and more concentrated in feel, while the honey starts to fade away. The leather and oakmoss feel even more like mere undercurrents, but the castoreum blooms. Unfortunately, the fragrance becomes harder to dissect at this point. One of the reasons why is that every element melts seamlessly into the next.
The other reason is the sillage. Ms. Hurwitz told me that her aesthetic preference is for soft, intimate fragrances, as she hates to “taste” perfume. As a result, she avoids creating anything with big projection. The problem is, on my skin, the lack of big sillage has resulted in several fragrances that have virtually NO sillage. I have problems with longevity, not projection, so it was quite a shock when a good number of the DSH line turned into skin scents on me after a mere 20 minutes. A few took even less time. Le Smoking was the best and strongest out of the ones that I’ve tried thus far, but it required me using over 1/3 of a 1 ml vial to experience even decent projection. Tests with a smaller quantity were rather hopeless, I’m afraid.
With the larger amount, Le Smoking initially wafted 1-2 inches in a very concentrated cloud. However, it took less than 12 minutes for the perfume to lie a mere inch above my skin. It dropped at the end of an hour to lie right on the skin, though it was always dense and rich in feel when smelled up close. Le Smoking turned into a skin scent after just 2 hours with the increased dose, but using anything less than 3-4 enormous smears gave me anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Le Smoking has decent longevity on my skin if I apply a lot, but the perpetual intimacy of its scent is not my personal cup of tea. In fact, I find it to be a huge problem.
It was even more of a problem for my Yves St. Laurent-adoring, Smoking-wearing, chypre-loving mother who was a natural target for my testing. After a mere 5 minutes with 2 big smears of Le Smoking, she said bluntly, “I can barely smell it.” So, I applied 2 more. It didn’t change things much, and my mother kept frowning at me as she sniffed. In fact, she later said that Le Smoking didn’t last more than 2 hours on her, which is unfortunately similar to some other reports of the perfume’s longevity. One reason for such a brief period of time is that Le Smoking is almost all natural (or possibly, entirely natural, I forget which now). However, having a skin scent sillage doesn’t help in letting people know the perfume might still be clinging on tenaciously.
The bottom line is that Le Smoking’s projection will be a massive problem for anyone who wants to smell their fragrance without having to actually put their nose on their skin and inhale forcefully. The longevity may be another big issue as well. On the other hand, the entire DSH line would be perfect for even the most conservative office environment.
Le Smoking is a largely linear fragrance on my skin, and loses a lot of its multi-faceted complexity after a while. As regular readers know, I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with linearity if you enjoy the notes in question. In this case, I love the early bouquet of tobacco, incense, earthy ganja-patchouli, and musky castoreum, with its chewy, honeyed, cloved, leathered, mossy and occasionally skanky inflections. Alas, at the end of the 2nd hour, Le Smoking turns primarily into a tobacco and marijuana fragrance with more abstract, indistinct elements ranging from earthiness, to spices, sweetness, and muskiness. It’s still lovely, but I have to admit, it isn’t as interesting or as enchanting as it was at the start.
An hour later, Le Smoking becomes an increasingly simple scent of earthy, sweet, musky tobacco. It remains that way until the end when Le Smoking dies away as a blur of sweet earthiness. All in all, Le Smoking lasted just under 8 hours on my skin with the massive dose. With more regular amounts, I had about 3-4 hours of duration. Yes, the difference was that dramatic, and my only explanation is that perhaps I simply couldn’t smell any lingering traces of the perfume.
I loved Le Smoking’s opening hour, absolutely loved it. It’s sexy as hell, beautifully done, very elegant, and incredibly sophisticated. The remainder was lovely, until the end of the third hour basically, at which point my frustration with the sillage started to impact my feelings about the scent as a whole. That’s not fair, and I know it, but it’s hard when you really like something and can barely detect it. I’m clearly the wrong target demographic for DSH Perfumes, but it doesn’t change how smoldering or sexy Le Smoking can be at first, or how brilliantly it conveys Yves St. Laurent’s whole message behind his jackets.
The reviews for Le Smoking are very positive, though rarely detailed. (As a side note, there are no comments posted on Fragrantica about the scent.) At Bois de Jasmin, guest-writer Suzanna had a tiny paragraph which was mostly about Le Smoking’s notes. The one sentence about the smell of the actual perfume itself was: “The brilliant touch is that this fragrance, which might sound like a heavyweight, dries down to a light, erotic skin scent.” Mark Behnke wrote more for CaFleureBon:
For Le Smoking Ms. Hurwitz embraces the masculine origins of the tuxedo with the herbal quality of clary sage and green galbanum making a provocative start. Geranium carries the green theme into the heart and then a sweet jasmine leads to a honey and cannabis accord that truly smokes. Tobacco signals the transition to the base and this is a sweeter tobacco for arising from the cannabis. It is complemented by incense, balsam, and leather.
Over at Now Smell This, Angela loved Le Smoking, calling it one of her two favorites from the YSL Retrospective Collection
On my skin, Le Smoking is a trip to a spring pasture while wearing a classy formulation of Dana Tabu. Le Smoking is a sweet-dirty medley of tobacco, benzoin, incense and dry leather with a chiffon-like veil of tart green overlaying it for the five minutes the green takes to burn off. All those flowers listed in its making? I’m sure they do something important, but they collapse to a sultry, unisex potion fit for double agents who lounge in private clubs.
Neither of these fragrances lasts much longer than three hours before retreating to skin level, but it’s an enjoyable ride while it lasts.
Le Smoking lasted a similarly brief period of time on Marlen over at The Perfume Critic, but he also loved the scent and thought it a throwback to the men’s classics of the ’70s. His detailed review reads, in part, as follows:
Le Smoking is a stunning, unisex chypre built on leather, tobacco/marijuana and Moroccan incense. […]
You’ll like this if you like: Tobacco, chypres, leather fragrances, Fresh Cannabis Santal.
Pros: So incredibly different from most chypres thanks to Dawn’s light hand with the oakmoss – no grassy, soapy drydown here; absolutely no “natural perfume” vibe.
Cons: I wish the longevity was a bit better. [¶][…]
Reminds me of: Le Smoking is a throwback to men’s fragrances of the mid-80′s – think Tuscany Uomo and Santos de Cartier…or even further back to the classic chypres of the late 60′s and early 70′s such as Rabanne Nuit, Ivoire de Balmain, etc. It’s tone, however, is a bit lighter than all of these. [¶][…]
Le Smoking is seamlessly blended and though it moves from a bright neroli & citrus opening to warm, ambery basenotes, the core of the composition never really shifts – tobacco, marijuana and leather are always at the heart. […][¶] Lasted about 2-3 hrs on my skin; I wish it packed a bit more punch for a longer period of time. […]
Le Smoking was my hands down favorite of Dawn’s collection created for the Denver Art […] [A]s chypres and I never really get along, likely due to the dry and bitter soapiness of the oakmoss (and I also have problems with tobacco scents for the same reason), I was a bit surprised to fall so deeply in love with Dawn’s creation. Despite the complexity of the composition, Le Smoking has a singular character, not unlike the aroma that greets the nose at the opening of a filled humidor. But what really gets me going is the vanillic sweetness at the drydown that lingers and lingers, so unlike many of the scents it reminds me of who become far too dry for my tastes.
Truly, Le Smoking as a natural perfume feels as if it could have come from an equivalent niche house like L’Artisan or Caron.
I agree, Le Smoking doesn’t smell like the typical natural perfume, and would work well on someone who loves tobacco, leather, or cannabis scents. I would add patchouli and smoky fragrances to that list as well, but not necessarily chypres. I think anyone who expects a typical or truly green chypre perfume may be in for a little bit of a surprise.
All in all, I think the Maestro would have thoroughly enjoyed Le Smoking and its dark, sultry character. I know he would have smiled approvingly at how elegantly the perfume crosses gender lines. Le Smoking is absolutely lovely, and I would wear it in a heartbeat if … well, you know.
Disclosure: Perfume sample courtesy of DSH Perfumes. That did not impact this review, I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.