The use of escales in perfumery is a relatively recent thing, supplanting the slightly outmoded word, cologne used by some brands. The difference being that escale, the French word for stopping off and escaping on a languid vacation away, implies the perfume is an olfactive musing on enchanting destinations.
Traditionally colognes have been perceived as one of the lightest permutations of scent. Strictly speaking the use of eau de parfum, eau de toilette, cologne, extrait, pure perfume etc have always referred to the levels of actual perfume ingredients in a formula. One of the problems with this is that the world of manufacturing and customer scrutiny has persuaded brands to redefine their own classifications.
Definitions vary too, from brand to brand and now it feels like such descriptors rarely register. Brands reach for words like sport, noir, fume, cuir and ombre to name a few that psychologically nudge us into flanker mode.
Escale is a welcome development though, suggesting a mix of exotic musing, holiday longing and bright, light formulae. The word itself is as crisp as a boat’s ensign cracking in a summer breeze. Cruise Collections in fashion are a showcase of resort wear, expensive languid couture for the upper limits of haute-riche clients of brands like Prada, Dior and of course Chanel who under the aegis of Monsieur Karl took resort wear to a whole different level. Blues, whites, nautical themes, day to night lightness. Les escales, the wealthy making essential time to surrender to exotic, luxurious destinations.
Perfume is tricky to navigate in hot weather. Lighter, more airy compositions are necessary. Usually built around hesperidic notes such as Italian bergamot, lemon, lime, yuzu, and grapefruit, these can be mixed with vetiver and herbs like basil and mint. There can be oceanic notes, soft sea water and the addition of cool fine sand, grasses, orange blossom and spices like pink pepper and cardamom.
The original Dior Cruise Collection of perfumes set a high bar in terms of composition, beauty, and atmosphere. Francois Demachy invited us to Pondicherry, Portofino, Parati, and the Marquise islands. Exotic destinations, off the beaten track, inviting hazy, laid-back stop-overs. Many of us will never visit the actual places, but Demachy’s pitch perfect portraits are bursting with joyful expectation.
We have Coco Chanel to thank for the glamorisation of short stylish escapes from the demands of Paris. She flaunted tanned skin, something unthinkable a few years previously. Tanned skin had always been associated with physical labour, farmers, sowing and harvesting, whereas elite skin was rosy, pale as milk and Madonna lilies. Chanel turned this upside down, suggesting now that tanned golden skin demonstrated the rich could lounge in the sun. Places like La Rochelle, Juan-les-Pins, Nice, Cannes and Biarritz become hyper-glamorous destinations.
Les Indémodables have done something a little different, pushing through suggestions of resorts and holidays to places that produce the grand cru materials. So Escale en Indonesie and Escale en Haïti, while both suggesting far-flung destinations, are more concerned with the materials sourced there. Indonesie is built around a delicious silken ambergris tincture and Haïti is a rooty, fizzy vetiver that smells like jade.
Escale en Indonesie is a hymn to ambergris, here used in a complex tincture. There is a lot of misunderstanding about ambergris or grey amber. Ambergris is a bilatory secretion from the whale, used to protect their guts from the spiny squid beaks.
Ejected into the sea and via extraordinary osmosis, the lumps of ambergris are soothed, blurred, and transfigured by the heat of sun, salt water and, with time, turn into an iris grey waxy, silken salted substance. It is without parallel, adding beautiful oceanic notes with warm skies, fine sand, and corporeal allure.
Ambergris is also a fine fixative working to preserve the integrity of a composition while stretching out the beauty of base notes. Although an animal note, the finest ambergris comes from the whales themselves, ridding themselves of the occasional lump of what is sometimes known as floating gold.
Perfumes that use ambergris tinctures have a subtle but noticeable sheen to them, like a pale boudoir varnish. Perfumers that use it well are capable of plush designs that both integrate and expose the luxurious facets that tinctured ambergris allows.
In Escale en Indonesie the amber floats on a citrus sea of bergamot, orange blossom and lush Sicilian lemons that seem made from the sun itself. The ivory green of pungent jasmine mixed with a creamy sandalwood provide a light but durable base for everything. It is a very addictive scent, kept in the fridge then spritzed on, momentarily chilling the air and senses.
It is the trick of these escale colognes to radiate lightness of touch and atmosphere. Through the often very beautiful and discernible compositions by Les Indémodables, we feel transported and immersed in the ingredients. Valérie’s showcasing of grand cru materials with frameworks of complementary materials flatters both the perfumed elements and us.
Escale en Haiti is a rich, sparking hymn to vetiver, one of the most beloved ingredients in perfumery. In many ways it is a family of fragrances in its own, such is its popularity and addictive permutations of scent. Like grape varieties, tea, iris rhizomes and vanilla, the concept of terroir has become important, with country of origin, soil and weather conditions and local agricultural practices playing a vital part in shaping the odour of the ingredients.
Vetiver from Haiti, India, China, and Java have unique odour profiles. Some are deeply rooty, others grassy and balsamic. Smoke, honey, and leather nuances are often detected too.
Escale en Haiti is a beautiful scent, crystalline like a dream sea. Pink pepper and juniper berries add a cocktail vibe. The cold earthiness of the vetiver has unusual support. Antoine Lie, the perfumer has wrapped the vivid grassiness with vanillic tonka bean and a smudged and smoky myrrh from Somalia. The overall impression is potentially jarring, but a warm sense of powdered almonds and an echo of crystallised violet make Escale en Haïti such a delight on the skin.
Alex Musgrave is an Edinburgh-based freelance copywriter specialising in perfume. He writes about the poetry, love and desire in scent; asking us to pause and inhale our surroundings, skin and perfumes, believing such moments can transform us.