“A Nice Way to Think About One’s Relationship with Time and Objects”–A Chat About Perfume with Shiamin Kwa
Welcome to the perfume episode!
(Well, hopefully the first of many perfume episodes.)
Let’s take a temporary glamour break from everything that’s awful in the world right now, shall we?
Much like my very first episode of the show with Casey Andrews, where we chatted for well over an hour about our favorite films of the 2010s, this episode is less of an interview and more of an excuse for me to nerd out about one of my big passions with a fellow scent obsessive.
Today I’m in conversation with my dear and brilliant friend Shiamin Kwa.
Shiamin is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of three books, the most recent being Regarding Frames: Thinking with Comics in the Twenty-first Century, which was just released by RIT Press in February of this year. Her written work explores relationships between form and content, text and image, self and self-presentation, surface and depth, and the conflicts between what we say and what we mean. Her research interests include theater and fiction, food studies, graphic narratives, literary studies, cultural studies, comparative and world literature, and literary and narrative theory.
She also contributed an amazingly funny and tender essay about the band Wham! to my most recent zine The Last Band of My Youth.
In today’s deep dive on perfume, we talk about how smells can seem so much richer in our memories when we don’t have access to them anymore, the quiet spaciousness of perfume as object, how we’re meant to interact with perfume on a time scale, how wearing Frederic Malle’s “Portrait of a Lady” is like having to do self-promotion as the author of a new book, and the difficulty of imposing order on things you love.
You can find Shiamin on Instagram at shiamin_kwa or you can join her new Covid Book Club that’s just getting started reading The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) at red_chambers_club.
Jessica recently wrote on her site, Perfume Professor, “I’m taking this opportunity to visit my perfume cupboard and my sample drawer every day and choose something that I’d never wear to the office—something too bold, too sweet, too diffusive, something that isn’t quite ‘me’ but that I do love to smell once in a while.”
The place in Evanston with the amazing magazine selection is the Chicago-Main Newsstand.
I’ve never been able to confirm it–there doesn’t seem to be a transcript of the article anywhere online–but I’m pretty sure that the Maya Rudolph comment about learning how to perform femininity by peeking in other girls’ bathrooms came from her interview with Amy Sedaris in the April/May 2005 issue of Bust magazine. If anyone has a copy of this issue still laying around and can confirm this, please let me know!
I attend the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple.
Barbara Herman’s book is called Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume. She’s also the founder of Eris Parfums.
I was wrong; the quote I’m thinking of wasn’t from Barbara Herman. It actually comes from Brian Pera from this post on the blog I Smell Therefore I Am: “I thought then and still think now you shouldn’t have to make excuses for smelling better than life at large wants you to.”
Alexander McQueen’s “Kingdom” was composed by perfumer Jacques Cavallier and contains notes of orange, mandarin orange, mint, neroli, bergamot, lemon, carnation, ginger, rhubarb, jasmine, celery seeds, rose, amber, musk and oakmoss.
Although the official inspiration for Pierre Guillaume’s “Poudre de Riz” is usually cited as a line from the 1908 novel L’Enfer by Henri Barbusse (“The air in the disordered shuttered room was heavy with a mixture of odours: Soap, face powder, the sharp tang of cologne…”), I’ve always loved the way he describes it in this short interview on Basenotes:
Poudre de Riz – what was traditionally used for face powder, it’s quite an old fashioned smell and has a set of traditional associations, it’s a very classical accord, but for this I thought about a bungalow on the beach.
There is a couple in the bungalow and it’s important to know that they f*** all night – not make love, you get the difference? In the morning the doors are opening, there is an oceanic breeze, monoï is on the breeze because that’s what you smell in the air. I started with something that evokes sexuality. There is the poudre de riz accord, then the middle has a monoï accord (but it’s not a perfumery material, so it’s what you make that smells like monoï). There is also a rose petal material in the middle.
This isn’t a strong and heavy ‘sexy’ scent though…
It’s all about the skin. I wanted to capture the morning after, the tenderness. And I love about skin when you go on holiday and have been on the beach all day, and your skin is lovely and brown and then you go back to have your shower, to wash everything off. You come out of the shower, you are all clean and you put some cream your skin to protect it and keep it looking beautiful. It’s the most important part of the day, you’re excited, then you get ready and put on a beautiful dress that shows how good that skin looks, and go out to a restaurant for the evening. That’s what I wanted to capture.
Lubin’s “Kismet” contains notes of bergamot, lemon, petitgrain, Rose Centifolia, Bulgarian rose, patchouli, labdanum cistus, opoponax, and vanilla.
Frederic Malle’s “Portrait of a Lady” was composed by Dominique Ropion and contains notes of rose, blackcurrant, raspberry, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, and frankincense.
Visit Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab online here.
Etat Libre d’Orange’s “Like This” was made in collaboration with Tilda Swinton. Notes listed include yellow mandarin, ginger, pumpkin accord, immortelle, Moroccan neroli, rose de Grasse, vetiver, heliotrope, and musk.
Profumi del Forte’s “Tirrenico” lists notes of marine accords, bitter Sicilian orange, bergamot, Egyptian jasmine, Philippine Elemi oil, basil, oakmoss, sandalwood, and white musk. I wrote more about my love for “Tirrenico” here.
I’ve written more about my love for Tom Ford’s “Soleil Blanc” here.
Recommended reading: Alyssa Harad’s Coming to My Senses, Turin and Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A to Z Guide, Barbara Herman’s Scent & Subversion, Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent, and Catherine Haley Epstein’s Nose Dive.