I have always been intrigued by natural perfumes. I have not been able to test many of them mostly because the US is the Mecca of natural perfumery and buying samples from independent natural perfumers and having them shipped to Europe usually ends up amounting to a ridiculous cost and I haven’t had such money to spend. Essentially Me, the house founded by the late Alec Lawless got my attention when his creation, Empress of India, was nominated for the UK FIFI award for independent perfume of the year. The sample pack was reasonably priced and it consists of the first Essentially Me ten releases but does not include Empress of India.
Alec Lawless’s contribution to perfumery covered many aspects. He wrote books, taught courses, created all natural perfumes and had copyrighted a system for note listing, different to the traditional top, middle and base system. His system classifies notes in three conceptual groups, heart, nuance and intrigue. Heart being the center element of the composition, nuance the surrounding notes and intrigue the contradicting note used to make things more interesting. For instance Tubéreuse Criminelle analyzed this way would have a heart of tuberose, a nuance of orange flower, floral and musk accords and an intrigue of camphor. This system of conceptualization is very interesting, particularly when it comes to modern fragrances, using a lot of synthetic elements. The classic top-middle-base system is founded on a linear, temporal development of a perfume. With natural ingredients this is fairly accurate. But where does that leave room for IsoE Super for example which seems to be able to come and go throughout the development of a perfume, always keeping a low volume but a sustained, extended longevity? I have thought of switching to his system for my perfume reviews but never quite got around to switching my brain to it and also I was not sure of what the copyright on this involved. This is a much belated review of the samples from Essentially Me that has become imperative for me as a tribute to the creativity of Alec Lawless. I hope his spirit continues to live through his very aptly named perfume house, Essentially Me.
Trade Wind opens with a boozy accord. It has a quality I have come across in other all natural perfumes: it smells so good you just want to drink it! Literally. And it smells completely edible but not gourmand in the classical sweet sense. I would be tempted to try to recreate this as a liqueur. In the heart nutty notes with a green hue enter the composition. The metallic green notes of galbanum mark the development from there. A slightly urinous honey note makes a short appearance but quickly fades into a warm hay note. Some vague (to my nose) floral notes add sweetness and body. The drydown is a warm, rustic aromatic and earthy. Unisex to masculine, warm, elegant. Fragrantica lists soil tincture as a note. I have heard of soil being used in the preparation of attars but this is the first time I see this in a western perfume.
Souk starts boozy and herbal but soon a soapy heart starts beating. It is a very complex fragrance with spicy notes, a hint of mushrooms in the heart and an unexpected floral turn that becomes stronger as the perfume progresses. A hint of immortelle and hay add to the complexity. Although it is listed as a feminine fragrance, the strong herbal attributes make it at least unisex.
I rarely write about amber dominant fragrances simply because this note is overbearing to me . In fact it is so overbearing that I cannot wear them enough to form a Full Bottle opinion. Essentially Me Amber however is an amber I can see myself wearing. It opens boozy and spicy with a honeyed roundness. I get an oregano note from this. It is a savory gourmand amber with notes of olive. I am a big fan of the rare savory gourmand genre that is represented by Sienne l’Hiver for instance and Amber fits into this difficult category. The drydown is smokey. This is a very dry amber with an imposing presence. Reminds me of Ambre Sultan, but is less sombre, more bitter and more carnal.
Tangos is more feminine than the perfumes I have already presented above. It has a spicy opening that leads into a white floral and patchouli heart. It is more volatile and less herbal. There is a zesty geranium note that smells just like real geranium oil. The drydown is full of the richness of tobacco and musk. Although the floral heart is intense, this one is also perfectly wearable by men.
In an abstract, vague way Classique reminds me of the greenness of Chanel No19. A combination of green and floral elements dance together, as the name implies, in a classical way. Vetiver and petit grain contribute their bitterness. Neroli, rose and ylang-ylang get stronger as development progresses. Classique is different from the other four fragrances I have presented above because it is less herbal. The composition contains fewer basenotes and it is more sparkling. I would love to see a little more vetiver added to this because I like the dense, imposing drydown of the others in this line.
White Blooms is much more complex than the name implies. It opens with the contradiction of a white floral bouquet of orange blossoms, jasmine and tuberose and the thick trademark base of the line which uses hay and herbal notes. As development progresses the two opposing poles come together balancing in the composition and creating the impression of live white flowers, straight from the bush. The herbal aspect vanishes, or rather incorporates into the floral, and the flowers become more photorealistic. The herbal notes I expected to become more vivid in the drydown do exactly the opposite. What is left of them gives a carnal dimension to the white flowers. The counter-intuitive progression continuous and as we move deeper into the drydown the fragrance becomes lighter and the emphasis is put on the orange flower. An impressive composition with the structure of an inverted pyramid.
I have to admit that even if my life depended on it I could not identify a chypre as such. I can point the finger at a fougere but chypre remains a mystery to me. So I am not going to tell you if Chypre is a real chypre or what kind of chypre it is. I can tell you that it opens with a huge cypress and oak moss accord. The cypress is so resinous that the opening is dominated by a turpentine note, very much like Olivier Dourbano Black Tourmaline. The difference is that where Black Tourmaline is woody, Chypre is vegetal. Turpentine tones down and bergamot and an unidentifiable (to my nose) floral element appear. As the base warms up, the herbal element and trademark of the house enters the scene with notes of tobacco and spices. Chypre remains bitter, herbal and rather masculine.
La Joupe is the most feminine and conventional of the line. A combination of a classic flowers (rose mostly) and an unlisted sweet citrus accord play with a balsamic base, vetiver and patchouli. It stands with one foot on a very feminine heart and with the other on a rustic, bitter, balsamic base. Very deep and dense. It reminds me a lot of Aromatics Elixir
First time I tried Kuan Yin, it came across as less interesting than the rest of the line. A citrus. And as much as I enjoy a good citrus I cannot be swept off my feet. While revisiting the perfumes and retouching my notes from my initial impression I realized that it actually is one of the most remarkable from this house. A citrus for grown-ups. Thick, bitter, zesty lime, grapefruit and mandarin in super condensed form. A touch of vanilla. A bubblegum-y osmanthus. And the olive note that Alec Lawless knew how to use. Kuan Yin is extremely full-bodied. Combining many different elements it manages to convey the experience of biting into a citrus fruit with the peel on. Condensed, bitter and sweet at the same time and very cooling. Incense makes an unexpected appearance in the deep drydown in a pas de deux with vanilla . A must-try for citrus lovers and citrus skeptics alike.
Fauve was the least interesting for me. Not because it was unappealing but because it felt like a variation of Chypre. A more feminine, rounder version of this. The drydown however has a dignified beauty.
What makes Essentially Me fragrances stand out is that they have a full body. The are strong and with good longevity, which is not something most natural perfumes can promise and deliver. What has won my heart however was the intensely herbal aspect they have, almost rustic but not unsophisticated. They made me want to run barefoot on the grass. They are debonair and mature, mostly masculine leaning. I was impressed by Trade Wind, Amber, White Blooms and Kuan Yin. All of them manage to present a different approach to a known theme.
I am saddened by the fact that the untimely death of Alec Lawless was what motivated me to sit down and finish this mini-review of his creations. His unpretentious approach of perfumery will be greatly missed.
Photo of Alec Lawless via justbemagazine.com