"It smells like somewhere I've been," the blonde, bearded bartender muses. He's sniffing a receipt liberally sprayed with controversial perfume Sécrétions Magnifiques — Etat Libre d'Orange's most notorious scent, designed to call to mind "the pinnacle of sexual pleasure" with accords of blood, saliva, sweat and sperm. My friend Raffy and I giggle in response. "You've definitely been there I am sure," Raffy notes, sipping on her whiskey cocktail. A faint powdery floral scent begins to diffuse into the atmosphere. I am trying to hold out smelling my sample until I have gauged a few people's blind reactions. I try not to breathe in."Sheffield!" the bartender exclaims. "That's where it smells like. It reminds me of Sheffield. And Ireland too, actually, walking in the woods in Ireland." I'm smiling to myself. I haven't been to Sheffield (the English city) since I was a child, to see Disney On Ice with my grandparents — but images of used condoms on the floor down back alleys come to mind and I start to laugh. I can smell something very outdoorsy, but I am not sure if it's all the wood and whiskey in the beautiful, nautical pub we are drinking in. Our friend the bartender goes to serve another customer, a pretty inebriated fellow who tries to befriend us with tales of machete-hacking deadly millipedes in the Amazon jungle with a guide called Rambo. (I know; we didn't believe him either.) He gets his iPhone out and shows us a video of him, topless, in the jungle, ringing out his sweat-soaked t-shirt. I can't look. I can't help but think, "Maybe he's feeling the Sécrétions Magnifiques!"
I first heard about Sécrétions Magnifiques when visiting one of my best guy friends, Leo. Knowing I am fascinated by all things bizarre, sexual or regarding attraction, he told me about this unusual, unisex perfume that was designed to smell like sex. I became slightly obsessed, and did me some intensive research!
Etat Libre d'Orange — the French perfume house behind Sécrétions Magnifiques — is notorious for its unconventional scents with immodest, poetic names. The brand has worked with the amazing and ethereal Tilda Swinton on developing curious fragrances, and aims to play with the boundaries of what can be "considered" a perfume. Their perfumes are conceptually inspired; creating characters, stories and atmospheres with their ugly-beautiful accords. Jasmine et Cigarette, for example, conjures the ghost of an old Hollywood siren doused in jasmine eau de parfum and smoking a cigarette from a long, elegant holder. Their philosophy had me hooked.
Sécrétions Magnifiques, which launched in 2006, is still causing a ruckus today. Its provocative ad copy reads:
"Like blood, sweat, sperm, saliva, Sécrétions Magnifiques is as real as an olfactory coitus that sends one into raptures, to the pinnacle of sensual pleasure, that extraordinary and unique moment when desire triumphs over reason. Masculine tenseness frees a rush of adrenalin in a cascade of high-pitched aldehydic notes. The sensation of freshness is gripping. Then the fragrance reveals a metallic side, precise and as sharp as unappeased desire. We are on a razor-edge... skin and sweat mingle, and tastes of musk and sandalwood. The slightly salty marine effect stirs, arouses, and sets your mouth watering. Tongues and sexes find one another, pleasure explodes and all goes wild. Confusion reigns supreme. A subversive, disturbing perfume. It’s love or hate at first sight. Sensuous jousting is rarely satisfied with half-measures. In between Don Juan and the woman who offers herself, arms are laid down. And who will be the first to surrender?"
Famous perfume reviewers have violently mixed opinions on the stuff. Olfactory guru Katie Puckrik's famous reaction video has had thousands of Youtube viewers ROFL-ing at her extremely negative reaction to the scent. Whereas perhaps the most respected fragrance critic alive today, Luca Turin, gave Sécrétions a glowing review in his Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, hailing it as "intelligent," "an elegant fresh floral... given a demonic twist." The review that convinced me to get my debit card out, and order a sample vial via Surrender To Chance, though, was the exquisitely eerie piece on Elena Vosnaki's blog, Perfume Shrine, in which she describes the scent as "a study on every female fear."
My intense preoccupation with the chemistry of allure, attraction and sex — especially between men and women — has led me to watch many documentaries on the subject. The science of lust has revealed to us the importance of smell and taste to our animal instincts in choosing a sexual partner. Experiments have shown that a large part of our initial attraction to the opposite sex is underlying and chemical.One experiment conducted in 1995 by Swiss zoologist Claus Wedekind gave a selection of women an assortment of men's shirts, each worn by an individual man. The women were asked to smell each shirt and rate their scents for their olfactory allure. The women then met the shirt's owners, and rated each man on how attracted they were to them. Sure enough, the results corresponded, showing that natural scent does play a part in attractiveness. (This is because our bodily odors contain chemical information on our DNA and immune system.)
I wondered if and how Sécrétions Magnifiques would explore these bodily signals. And I was quite excited to see if it really was as repulsive as its reputation suggested. How could they manage to replicate such human smells? I guess you're wondering, what was my verdict?
Sécrétions Magnifiques, $86, etatlibredorange.com
Okay, let's start with the packaging. On Etat Libre d'Orange's "Declaration of Independence," the brand states that:
"In keeping with the emphasis on fragrance, Etat Libre d’Orange has dismissed the superficiality of ostentatious packaging in favor of simplicity and elegance. The purity and uniformity of our bottles form a gallery of innovation for those who are more concerned with originality in scent than pretentious fanfare."
I do understand where they are coming from — in terms of fashion and other visual products, I always feel that choosing minimal packaging over pomp and pageantry is the way to go. The product should speak for itself. However, with perfume — something that tells invisible stories — I feel that visuals are paramount in advertising, and can help enhance the scent's charms.
With such an avant-garde concept, reinforced by lyrical copy, I expected a beautiful bottle and visuals not unlike Boudicca's Wode. Like Sécrétions Magnifique, Wode has conceptual origins — being inspired by English Queen Boudicca's tribe's warpaint of choice, the blue woad. (Think Braveheart.) To Ancient Britons, woad would have seemed magical. The plant extract was muddy brown in color until exposed to oxygen, when it transmorphed into a deep indigo blue. Wode references this mysticism by appearing blue on the skin when first sprayed, before disappearing into a ghostly transparency. Extracts of black hemlock reference Boudicca's suicide by hemlock poisoning, the Perfumed "paint" coming in a silver spray can, alluding to graffiti — the modern warpaint.
Wode Paint Perfume, $140, ahalife.com
The advertising campaign is equally as disturbingly magical. A series of photos of a blonde model — in the throes of ecstasy — is doused in the scent, her neck covered in blue pigment, like blood.
Unlike Wode, Sécrétions' bottle looks more like something you would pick up in a scent kiosk or bargain cosmetics store. The jaunty mod-inspired target logo and bottle just don't look minimal to me, rather kind of boring. The "cheeky" graphic that accompanies the perfume — a cartoon penis ejaculating — isn't controversial or tongue-in-cheek, either. It's mildly amusing, if a little childish. I enjoy a good penis joke as much as the next girl, but I feel ELDO's graphic designer could've done a lot more with it! With all the hype around Sécrétions Magnifiques and the perfume's "story," I can't help but think they haven't exploited the amazing visuals they could have created to accompany the scent.
Where the scent itself is concerned — if I am totally honest — I was incredibly underwhelmed (at first!). I was expecting a horrific, choking metallic; savory body odor and bleached semen smell, softened by the sickly, malty aura of warm milk and florals. Something thick and clotted and creamy — inescapable. With a quick spray onto the wrist, I thought I had possibly been given the wrong scent! What was all the fuss about?!!
After an alcoholic opening, which smells like sweet spirits, there is a clean trace of freshly washed laundry. Sécrétions to me, is mostly powdery like a dusty floral, not unlike baby powder. The more I smell it, the more I pick up on the smoked, salty edge that sticks to the nose with the potency of cigarette smoke. The organic, aquatic lull in the scent warms up as it develops. However, it is the clear scent of the sea breeze rather than the sticky folds of hot skin or semen.
I have always thought of semen as smelling a little like swimming pools — clean, chlorinated, but bodily. There is a slight clinical edge to the mix, when sprayed into the air, which thankfully dissipates when it reacts to your skin chemistry, but it has a coldness to it that is not bodily. The silage, however, does have a slight scent of semen and the cloying sickliness of lactic notes, but not to the point of conjuring "hot garbage cans in summer," as some reviewers put it. A slightly metallic glow — like that of pennies or the aroma of iron vitamin tablets — rings true on the skin. It doesn't turn the stomach, though, or at least it doesn't turn mine.
If anything, I quite like Sécrétions Magnifiques, despite the slight "old lady"-powder-puff vibe and synthetic twang. To me it smells chalky, bright — a marine floral. On the skin, it smells intimate, almost enhances and projects your natural scent. I noticed how, when worn by a woman, the perfume took on an almost honeyed scent; whereas it grew muskier on male skin. As one user comments on perfume blog Bois de Jasmine's review: "I'd rather say it's the smell of the Mermaid from Andersen's tale."
I wouldn't describe it as smelling violently like sexual fluids, rather the memory of an encounter. The whole experience of Sécrétions Magnifiques is soft, wispy, ephemeral. Despite its longevity and enveloping floury quality, it is not in fact overpowering or too strong. If anything, SM is more vanilla sex than S&M, with sugary notes to boot. To me, it smells like the traces of natural scent left on your pillow after spending the night with a guy, and trying to savor it. Victoria of Bois de Jasmin says, "It never ventures into an unsavory realm, never hints too much at unpleasant bodily emissions, yet one cannot help but draw associations. It may remind one of the scent of kisses on warm skin, or of something else far more risqué."
I truly believe there is something of a placebo effect with Sécrétions Magnifiques. (Either that or my nose is numb!) Without first describing the scent's suggestive inspirations, no one had a strong reaction to the perfume. When warned of the colorful accords, reactions were somewhat more negative. My mom literally ran for the air freshener and almost vomited. My friend Natasha, likewise, felt physically sickened. (Although she is pregnant, and therefore her nose is on high alert!) It is also interesting to note that when told about the perfume's intentions, people often changed their opinion. Whilst sat in the pub, Raffy and I met a really friendly, older couple who asked about what we were up to. We asked them to test the perfume, which they did with pretty positive results. Once we disclosed that the perfume was supposed to smell like a variety of colorful body odors, the man in the couple's reaction took a nosedive.
My conclusion is that Sécrétions Magnifiques is an expensively playful concoction designed to work on the power of suggestion. I'm not sure they captured sexuality in the depth they intended, and I am unsure they have made the most of their visual advertising potential to make this a truly stunning piece of avant-garde art. Nevertheless, however off the mark they may be in some ways, there is no denying it is a clever piece of olfactory scandal. Nine years since its release, consumers and perfumistas alike are still discovering the uncomfortable allure of Sécrétions Magnifiques. And it's definitely an experience I recommend.
Images: Fotolia; Courtesy Brands; Giphy