Back in art school, my friend Sara and I had this obsession with the concept of Incognito Chic. Incognito Chic involved sunglasses, a trench coat, a head scarf, a taxi cab, and a good reason for all of the above. It’s not a style so much as a still in the film that we were sure our lives secretly were, or would be someday. Every long friendship has its memes, and this was just one of many. Sara moved to Portland a couple of years ago, but we have been friends for so long that she doesn’t need to live nearby for me to feel close to her, something I accredit to the fact that we both still live in a world full of the accumulated ideas we have shared over the years. When she wrote and asked about Jean Couturier’s Coriandre, the first thing that came to mind was our old Incognito Chic.
I have to smile at our mutual naivete in thinking that disguises were not only useful, but the kind of thing we really wanted an excuse for someday. As if all the drugs and boys and dancing and Truffault films weren’t enough, in and of themselves. This perfume speaks of a similar spirit, Coriandre being the kind of quintessentially wise perfume that makes the most sense (to me, that is–lord knows what Sara thinks) when worn aspirationally.
Were I to go incognito these days, my perfume of choice would surely be a chypre, one of those moody and mysterious compositions of cool dark woods, old-fashioned hothouse-corsage florals, dry bergamot, and the compelling if not entirely pleasant vinegary bite that results from combining the three. I’m not a chypre girl, and as you see, that’s the point. These are the sorts of perfumes reserved for a woman far more private and controlled than I am, a woman who hides because it is her nature and not because she gets a kick out of it, a woman whose life is an endless succession of high stakes and just-in-time taxi cabs cutting through stormy city streets by night.
Coriandre by Jean Couturier is no exception, although I find it somewhat more approachable than the Mitsoukos and Paloma Picassos of the world. Perhaps that is because it is indeed cheap, at maybe $19.99 at your local beauty bodega for a big spray bottle with a fake-malachite plastic cap and spare, clean lines. Perhaps it is because its top notes perform the neat chypre parlor trick of starting off as something unabashedly dreadful before morphing into the fuller, rounder heart notes very quickly, leaving less room for the panic at having sprayed the wrong thing. When I give Coriandre a bit of time to develop past the strange prickling spice-rack top notes, I smell the kind of shameless red roses that a hooker might receive with a roll of her eyes from a smitten john resting on a base of mossy black velvet. It’s dark and spooky while also giving off the impression of bracing and possibly perverse good health. It is the kind of fragrance you can wear many times without ever being able to decide whether or not you like it.
I reach for Coriandre only in the Spring, and only on the right kind of gray, drizzly Sunday that is not too rainy for a solo mission to the museum or a used bookstore. It goes with the trench coat I wear on those occasions; goes with a black umbrella and the yearning to poke around someplace dusty. I would have liked to have known about it in college, the Incognito Chic times, where every day was an excuse for unironic Godard Girl drag and I had more time set aside for flea markets and emotional turmoil. Being slightly used was something I romanticized before it happened to me. Now I need the right gray, drizzly Sunday for it to feel cinematic.
It makes the world seem a very small and cozy place when I think of Sara, somewhere in Portland right now, wearing Coriandre and pearls, riding her bike through the rain in high heels, turning pseudo-famous musicians into her boyfriends, having her picture taken at art gallery openings, and living the kind of life everyone needs to have for awhile before they can settle down into something without quite so many jump-cuts.
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