First Published on June 2014

On the subject of RACY:

Seaside postcards and dirty cami-knickers?  A pulse-beating boogie-woogie syncopation in time with your desire?

When I hear the word racy, this girl can’t help it, my mind goes down and dirty. But if sexy is slow burn, then racy is bright and bouncy. It’s sex with lashings of bawdy laughter. And racy is feral. As the saying goes, sex is only dirty if you’re doing it right. For me, racy is best described by the perfumers’ adjective “animalic”.

Perfumers evoke raunchiness in a variety of ways, increasingly by using molecules that reproduce the odour combinations once made possible by ingredients such as ambergris (whale vomit) or natural castoreum (extracted from the anal glands of beavers – and aren’t you glad you asked?). One of my favourite down and dirty molecules is indole, the chemical present in excrement, the chemical that comes with decay. It’s also a chemical found in white flowers, notably jasmine, which contains about 2.5 per cent. You’ll find a whiff of indole in gardenia, tuberose, honeysuckle, lilac and orange blossom as well. Since flowers are hugely expensive, it takes millions of blossoms to create small amounts of their natural oils – indole and its ilk are popular components in many floral fragrances.

Other ingredients that help evoke that animalic sensation include costus, a thistle-like plant used for centuries by perfumers and incense makers, said by some to smell like dirty hair; skatole, another chemical found in the breakdown of food and faeces and, you guessed it, white flowers; and nitrile, described as flowery, herbaceous and slightly fatty smelling. There is also labdanum, a brown resin popular because of its olfactory resemblance to ambergris, and the ingredient at the heart of many a perfume calling itself amber.

Often these molecules are used to highlight or recreate what already exists in nature. A couple of years ago I took a perfume class with Denyse Beaulieu, author of the Grain de Musc blog and The Perfume Lover. When talk turned to tuberose she explained that among the bloom’s non-floral facets are rubber, meat, salt, blood, butter and leather, but especially medicinal notes of camphor and mint.

That’s right, my darlings, everything has its dark side, if you know where to look for it.

We’ve all seen adverts full of half-dressed gals slithering along rumpled sheets, or drenched, naked men rising from foaming waves. Everyone’s familiar with Gaultier’s matelots and the sight of Charlize Theron slipping off her dress on behalf of Dior. But seriously, is it possible to capture sex in a bottle? And would you want to?

One of the most curious fragrance companies is Etat Libre d’Orange, whose perfumes often strike me as intellectual exercises – and highly entertaining ones at that. They are the people behind the love-it-or-despise-it perfume Sécrétions Magnifiques, created by Antoine Lie, who told Beaulieu: “I tried to give a smell to each major fluid in the human body.”

The company describes the results thus: “Like blood, sweat, sperm and saliva, this disturbing perfume is an ode to the pinnacle of sexual pleasure, that extraordinary moment when desire triumphs over reason.” The notes are: Iodised accord (fucus, azurone), adrenalin accord, blood accord, milk accord, sandalwood, opoponax. Those who love it talk about its creamy, powdery, oceanic scent, with a hint of iris and even coconut.

The same company makes Vierges et Toreros (the virgin and the toreador), a scent pitting flowers against leather in a dramatic fight to the finish. (I presume while spritzing one should quote Lou Reed and belt out: “Vicious, you hit me with a flower.”) The notes are bergamot, nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, ylang ylang, tuberose, leather, costus, patchouli and vetiver.

At first sniff, White Suede from Tom Ford’s Private Blend (composed with Firmenich), smells like hot tar spread on a new road. When that saucy, unexpected top note calms down, out come rose, saffron, thyme, mate tea, olibanum (another name for frankincense), lily-of-the-valley, amber, suede and sandalwood.

On my wish list is Les Nez’s Manoumalia, which set Denyse Beaulieu’s pulse racing. It was composed by the late Sandrine Videault and the centrepiece of the fragrance – designed to evoke Polynesia – is fagraea (similar to a gardenia) along with neo-Caledonian sandalwood and Java vetiver. Beaulieu wrote: “Have I already said how often I’ve been wearing Manoumalia, and how utterly, kiss-me-stupid beautiful it is? It is a lush, moist fragrance with the creamy texture of those tiny white flowers that exhale the most powerful scents, hidden under huge leaves. And like those flowers, it occupies space in the oddest way.” Additional notes are tiare, sandalwood sawdust, ylang-ylang and amber.

My personal perfume cabinet – yes, I have dedicated furniture – includes a bottle of Ormond Jayne’s Tolu. Wearing it, I have a strong urge to take advantage of myself in the most salacious manner. Notes include juniper, orange blossom, clary sage, orchid, Moroccan rose, muget, tolu balsam (resin from a Peruvian tree that smells like vanilla), tonka (more vanilla accords), amber and frankincense. Wearing Tolu is like slipping into cashmere – with a plunging neckline.

If your idea of racy involves leather chaps (or chaps in leather), there are a lot of leathery scents to choose from and many variations on that theme. Chanel’s Cuir de Russie crops up on a lot of people’s ‘best of’ lists, though many call it a leathery floral rather than a true leather. It’s certainly chock full of floral notes including jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, orange blossom and a healthy shot of iris riding roughshod over its fellow flowers. If you like aldehylic compositions, you should enjoy this.

Finally, from Histoires de Parfums, another company whose scents send me into raptures, there’s 1740 (aka, Marquis de Sade), which was awarded five stars by Luca Turin, who praised its “leather, spice, pipe and buttery warmth”. I can’t extract my nose from my sample vial and dread the day it runs dry. The notes are: bergamot, patchouli, coriander, cardamom, cedar, birch, labdanum, leather, vanilla, elemi (a tree native to the Philippines with a balsamic scent), and immortelle (a flowering plant that evokes the scents of fenugreek, curry and toast).

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