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                                                                                              —Yves Saint Laurent

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· Perfume Notes: Chanel Bois Des Îles
· Beauty Notes: Pinch Your Cheeks
· The Makeup Artist: François Nars
· Desert Island: My Ideal Bookshelf (Li Wen)

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Perfume Notes: Chanel Bois Des Îles
by Dain

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533).

I am very fond of a little maxim, from pioneer computer scientist Jon Postel, known as the Robustness Principle: "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others." Though Postel's Law still operates within its original context of programming, it's also become a colloquialism for model behavior on the internet.

Not since the printing press has there been such a shock to traditional standards of representation and interpretation. The internet has no mercy. At the same time, it also serves as an outlet for creativity, immense in its freedom. If art is anything, it is representation, a feedback loop defined not by the signifier nor the signified themselves, but by the gap that lies between. This gap is inherent in all mechanisms of artifice: paint and canvas represent how the artist sees, not sight itself, and often the stylistic merit lies in conscious distortions. It's that fine line, as we say, between a nude and pornography. Likewise, we translate laundry-fresh musk as 'clean', unaware that musks originally came from the anal glands of male deer, before cheap synthetics like Galaxolide cemented decades of cultural association. It is utterly arbitrary; still, we revel in it. We are apt to say that a certain kind of woman wears Guerlain Vetiver (1961), while she who wears Vol de Nuit (1933) is in another category altogether. To us, this has greater sense than the physical smell.

Most people leave Bois des Iles (1926) with the impression of a bitter opening that mellows, ever so gracefully, into its famous sandalwood drydown. Thus excised of the floraldehydic heart that pegs it neatly between Coty and Roudnitska, Bois des Iles bears a remarkable resemblance to modern niche perfumery, with its adoration of dissonance, its narrowed focus on fully realized aromaterials. At least, hypothetically. Anyone familiar with Bois des Iles will scoff at such oversimplification. This is a magical elixir, the same warm embrace that compels Odysseus home, no matter the tribulations.

Why, then, does the floraldehydic bouquet, the Chanel 'trademark', fade into the background? After all, florals and aldehydes are the physical (though not spiritual) center of the perfume. Unlike No. 5 (1921), where abstracted florals are the main event, in Bois des Iles they play a supporting role, a deliberate subordination. Naked sandalwood is undoubtedly a glorious thing, but it also presents a challenge: traditionally, it is a base note. Even were it not so scarce, it would be difficult for sandalwood to take proper prominence without turning into raw incense or shaving soap. To circumvent linearity, Beaux enlists a progression of florals, as precisely choreographed as a ballet, to delay the final consummation. Bois des Iles smells like Bois des Iles—the highest possible compliment you can pay a perfume.

From the brittle aldehydes and astringent bergamot, Bois des Iles transitions seamlessly into a fizzy neroli, followed by a lush and heady jasmine, lingering prominently on rose, mindful of the floralcy in the sandalwood to come, then sweetening into ylang ylang, and finally a buttery iris, to segue into the drydown. All throughout, aldehydes dart in and out, each movement fluent and seemingly without effort. Most perfumers would have been well satisfied to conclude there, mechanically finishing on a little musk or amber. For the master behind No. 5, this is merely an intermediary.

Bois des Iles' floraldehydic heart builds suspense, enlarging on the sandalwood without upstaging it, to which task aldehydes are especially suited. If your mind is on other matters, there's nothing more than a vague perception of powdery florals, a faintly metallic softness, until the sandalwood emerges. In this way, Beaux manipulates the classic pyramid, which develops sequentially, in order to honor the drydown. (By contrast, the equally wood-centric but entirely modern Féminité du Bois (1992) is as self-contained as a sphere, more chord than melody.) Few forms in aesthetics are as ancient and powerful as the sequence—indeed, the earliest evidence of written language, dating from Mesopotamia, were lists of grain and livestock*—its very mechanics recreate the passage of time. As one word follows another on the page, in the mind's eye one traces the development of character or the convolutions of plot: the experience of interpretation mirrors the human experience. While perfume may not so forcibly represent reality as literature or painting or art, it does gain greater depth the more structured its design.

Almost as an afterthought, the sandalwood itself, the skillful realizations of its many facets. By the time the iris emerges, the sandalwood has already become apparent. Beaux adds vetiver to bring out the clean, meditative quality, the brittle texture of lignin, with coriander for a slightly medicinal pungency. The famed pain épice accord, honey and mellow spices, is more understated in the extrait, where the rose-like floralcy of sandalwood receives equal emphasis, than the eau de toilette. In the far drydown, Bois des Iles picks up a gentle sweetness from a final whiff of benzoin and amber.

Bois de Jasmin
Perfume-Smellin' Things
Haute Parfum
Olfactoria's Travels
What Men Should Smell Like
Now Smell This
The Non-Blonde

*There is considerable debate where and when written language first originated, a debate that cannot ever be resolved. Still, there is some popular consensus among archaeologists on Mesopotamia. My thanks to Stella J. for helping with fact-checking.

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2/24/2013 [2]

Beauty Notes: Pinch Your Cheeks
by Dain

For unmakeup, lipcolors, skincare routine, please read the previous installments of my stash breakdown.

My freeform Anothersoul. Planning to switch to the stronger magnet of Z Palette.

This is still a work in progress. I started expanding my blush collection very late, after a longstanding exclusivity to bright but muted pinks. The only criterion I've established thus far, informed by a lazy bare minimum of blush and lipstick, is the basic job description: to enhance the skin. However, to achieve the desired effect, unless you're blessed with a neutral skintone that swatches true-to-pan, you have to accommodate how your undertones alter pigments.

The process of deconstructing undertones is not exactly intuitive—the proverbial mustering of the blind around an elephant. You might guess at an overall skintone, by working backwards from a handful of reliable favorites, with further experimentation leading you ever closer to intimate knowledge. What confuses the matter further is that most people must address a mix of undertones. It does not necessarily follow, however, that you should narrow your sight on the color deemed an ideal fit. You might favor one undertone over another, with some slight adjustments, and even a clash can be worked to advantage, as a statement. The only 'inferior' shades sit somewhere in between, almost flattering yet vaguely off, which you instinctively blend into oblivion, the same intuition that rejects ill-tailored clothing.

I've managed to pull together a fair prediction for how my own skintone, a peachy blend of pink and yellow, affects pigment. Against the pink undertone, ruddier when I tan, even a hint of brown is apt to turn muddy. The yellow is extremely warm, so that all pigments shift yellower when swatched. Only when I'm ill and drawn can you detect any olive. A sheer mauve I might pull off, but plums and berries look bruised.

Sleek Pink Spirit // Laura Mercier Heather Pink // Becca Wild Orchid

Warm pinks, like Laura Mercier Heather Pink or Shiseido PK304 Carnation, I can wear with impunity, provided no browntones are involved. Since they are yellow-pinks, they settle very naturally and easily onto my skin. Heather Pink has become the chosen one for its silky texture, white base, matte finish, and its readily depottable size (note the alcohol stains). But finding a cool pink that won't be neutralized by the yellow in my skin proves trickier. Raspberries and blue pinks, like Sleek Pink Spirit, simply turn ruddy, losing most of their cooler tones. Instead, I've relegated Pink Spirit into the role of a dark cool red, as it wears on my skin, when the desired effect is a wintry flush.

For a true cool pink, it's the secret hint of grey within the mauve-touched rose of Becca Wild Orchid (sadly discontinued) that best counteracts the warmth of my yellow undertone. Though it looks more muted than the others, the grey prevents that yellow-tone shift, so it stays cool-toned—in fact, the coolest of the three. It is my favoritest blush, ever.

Shiseido RD402 Orchid // Sleek Chantilly // RMS Smile

Peaches and corals harmonize well with the yellow undertone, provided they're clean, bright colors, without too much brown. A brighter coral like RMS Smile, tempered by the barest tendency towards pastel, looks more like very healthy skin than makeup, that mythical peaches-and-cream complexion. I generally like strong blush, so I do favor the higher contrast that pinks provide, but certainly a natural glow is useful from time to time, especially with warmer lipcolors. I don't need to make quite so many adjustments with warm-toned blushes, since warmth is very much the point, so even a tangerine like Sleek Chantilly works well as a more intense, powdery counterpart to Smile. I will likely upgrade to Burberry Blossom or Illamasqua Lover some day.

To finish off bronzer in a realistic manner, I find that a warm red like Shiseido RD402 Orchid closely mimics the ruddiness that accompanies my natural tan. On their own, red blushes look off, almost sunburnt. (I suspect it may be because I don't flush naturally.)

Shiseido WT905 High Beam White // Dior Aurora // Laura Mercier Soft Iris

Admittedly, I rarely reach for bronzer. Faking one convincingly requires more labor than I generally want to invest in my makeup. Plus, there's all that pesky brown: nude blushes resemble bronzer, while the majority of bronzers go glaringly orange—a very little goes a long way. If the brown base is relatively sheer, as in Dior Aurora, with plenty of peach for liveliness and the aforementioned Shiseido Orchid to keep the bronze from looking flat, the result is a fair approximation of a tan. I walk softly and carry a big brush, even so.

For me, highlighter plays a supplementary role. As much as I admire the satin sheen of Shiseido High Beam White for its subtlety, especially on the browbone, more often than not I skip that step.

With my flatter bone structure, the sheer amount of product required to effectively sculpt my face would be grotesquely heavy-handed. As such, I've never bothered with a dedicated contouring product. After watching Mary Greenwell deploy a nude blush to sculpt the cheekbone, however, I've been thinking that a nude blush, less brown than a traditional contour, might be used to similar effect. With a brighter blush on top, it's a softer way to create dimension along the cheekbone. For the moment, I have a couple of candidates on trial. Unfortunately, Armani #5 is too brown, too close to bronzer; the greyer mauve Soft Iris from Laura Mercier is more promising. We shall see.

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2/16/2013 [7]

The Makeup Artist: François Nars
by Dain

We all know the feeling. You're browsing through the counters, swatching idly, when, all of sudden, something very pretty, very shiny beckons. And there you are, yet another eyeshadow richer. "Daïn's got a new toy!" my family likes to say. My first such magpie moment: Rated R.

Versatile, Rated R is not. Without work, the bright colors overpower me, and after twelve years, the textures have become outdated. Still, I treasure it, and will always treasure it, the last remnant of a once massive NARS collection. Rated R is a memento—of the very first time I bought makeup simply because it was pretty—but it also serves as a reminder about embracing experimentation. "One of the best things about makeup is its impermanence. If a look is a success, you can work it into your wardrobe of makeup 'faces'. If not, you can just wipe it off and try something new. I try not to take makeup too seriously, and neither should you." (p. 13, Makeup Your Mind: Express Yourself). NARS duos presented a challenge, at a time when eyeshadow palettes were tame and predictably coordinated, in how to harmonize colors in more inventive ways. To this day, it still informs how I manipulate colors.

Like most fashion brands, the focus is on glamour, often in François Nars' idiosyncratic palette. If naturalism is about fine-tuning and restraint, to the point it disappears from view, glamour makeup is an escalation in intensity. Even when worked in neutrals, glamour makes a statement. You could call it empowering, you could call it unapologetic, you could even call it excessive—like all statements, 'glamour' is open to a multiplicity of interpretations—but from tightlining to a flick, it is perhaps more simply described as a subtle shift in self-perception.

With increased freedom, one might think that glamour makeup has no restraints, no thought process behind the decisions. But for all the difference in intent and style, glamour abides by the same cardinal rule of naturalism: good makeup respects the face. Like Mercier, his fellow Carita alumna, Nars' more extroverted style builds on the features unique to the individual. "All too often, too many makeup artists go off on their own ego trips... Instead, they're out to prove... their skills or to put what they presume is their unique stamp on a woman's face... The woman being made up is the most important person here. Not the makeup artist." (p. 7, Makeup Your Mind). Certainly, a flick has more attitude than tightlining, more of a presence, but what matters most is how well it suits Deva's eye shape. In all his looks, François Nars manages a very delicate balance between freedom and control. He is stylized, yet not at all conceptual. The look is not a concept; it is still a face.

"Observation is the key to learning how to apply makeup" (p. 13, ibid), François Nars is keen to emphasize. This visually oriented approach, in which the face is shown with and without makeup, is more instructive than a hundred maxims. When the face dictates, you learn to trust the judgement of your eyes.

However, my admiration is alloyed with criticism. There is room for improvement with textures; though originally decent, the competition has left NARS behind. Since its inception, NARS has successfully established itself as a mainstream brand. Unfortunately, with such a high proportion of iconic shades, there is great difficulty updating formulations—a consequence of notoriety, perhaps. It's a shame. François Nars' eye for color is very special, not easy to replicate. After a lull of several years, an absence of direct agency within the collections, I was happy to see inspiration return full force in recent collections, especially since NARS has such powerful nostalgia for me. It would be wonderful to see that excitement of color married to buttery, luxurious textures.

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2/08/2013 [6]

Desert Island: My Ideal Bookshelf (Li Wen)
by Li Wen

IMG 2727

The earliest books I read in English were Mr. Men and Little Miss.* It was December 1992, and I had just moved from Shanghai to Sydney to live with my father. My command of English was basic; I had not yet started primary school. Every trip to the supermarket, I would pick up a couple of these plainly illustrated children's books at check-out (a dollar each), then cajole dad to read them aloud to me when we got home. Within a year, I'd graduated to Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis; they were my window into how this Anglo society I was now living in functioned, my first measuring stick for the known world. I retain, to this day, a fondness for proper afternoon teas and sardines on toast.

Books are disarmingly like people**. Some are invaluable companions and guides. Others make you laugh, or feel less alone. Some books are charlatans, luring you in with false promises, only to try to fool you with lies and bad logic. Exposure to liars is useful, helping to develop reasoning and argumentation, but you don't want those liars near you for too long, even if they are popular. From those closest to you, you want to be moved. You want to be enlightened and challenged. You want to be surprised.

I went to an Anglican girls' school, where there was little room for history that wasn't the Reformation and the Tudor kings and queens, so the first time that I read The Lions of Al-Rassan, and learnt about Moorish Spain, it was like I had discovered a world that was previously unknown. Through the accounts of early 20th century European explorers who fell in love with Arabia (Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger), I too became smitten. I rebelled against Western-centric history and responded to my resentment over its brushing over of China by wanting to learn about the Others in their own words. Classical poetry - songs of the individual and the everyday - was one avenue.

Donna Quesada, Daoism (1/9)

I am not religious, or even remotely interested in mysticism in the conventional sense. The philosophical ideas of Daoism (or Taoism) came into my life when I was disillusioned with the binary thinking that characterised all the legal and political philosophy that I'd studied at university. All the while that my mind felt trapped and besieged, I was still thinking within a paradigm that didn't have the words to express my struggle, until I started to read Tao Te Ching and its commentaries. For a crash course on Daoism that doesn't reduce the philosophy to soft mysticism (as many comparative religion courses do in the West, I've discovered), I recommend Donna Quesada's lectures on the subject. Cybernetics (Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener) and systems theory (Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Varela and Maturana), interdisciplinary fields that constitute a post-Newtonian science, seemed to be logical progressions from that line of thought.

My interests are very broad, so I read from a lot of different subjects and genres. Romantic love and sex, and angst about the same, is a notable exception. It was in my late teens that I started to understand my own asexuality. Tom Ripley (as Highsmith wrote him, not as he was portrayed in the Minghella film), murderer and sociopath though he is, remains one of my literary heroes; the first character I came upon that I recognised, in sweet relief, that Yes, he is like me. Laurie R. King's heroine, in A Monstrous Regiment of Women, articulated another side of it: "For me, for always, the paramount organ of passion was the mind. Unnatural, unbalanced, perhaps, but it was true: Without intellect, there could be no love." My bookshelf is a microcosm of how I think and love.

Left: The Club Dumas, Arturo Perez-Reverte; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn; Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson; The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith; The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
Centre: Lucifer, Mike Carey and Peter Gross; The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King; The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay; Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn; Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer; Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, translated by David Hinton
Right: Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger; The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin; A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.; Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombard; Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen; The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald; The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

*This series is based on My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount.
**And books should be treated as such. While I stand vehemently against censorship in principle, I maintain that there is a vast gulf between "having the right to say something" and "saying something that is right".

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2/02/2013 [12]

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