Jane Birkin piqued the imagination of thousands when she sighed heavily throughout “Je t’aime, moi non plus”, the Gainsbourg song that Brigitte Bardot had refused to sing and which the Vatican renounced as sinful. Her personality, her insouciance and her contradicting fashion sense, embracing tattered T-shirts alongside the Hermes bag which got named after her, made her an idol that contrary to most should be graced with a celebrity scent. And so it has: Lynn Harris, nose of Miller Harris, surrounded her aura with a bespoke which launched publicly to the delight of many.
Here at Perfume Shrine we were quite taken with it and decided to post our two versions of what it means to us.
“I have never liked perfumes. I have always preferred to carry potpourri in my pocket. It was an interesting exercise in finding out what you don't like. All the things usually associated with heady, dark-haired women like hyacinth, tuberose and lily-of-the-valley made me vomit when they were enclosed in a bottle so this one is much more me – I wanted a little of my brother's hair, my father's pipe, floor polish, empty chest of drawers, old forgotten houses."
Jane Birkin’s quote in vogue.co.uk at the British launch of L’Air de Rien put me off trying the scent for quite a while. I love perfume, loathe potpourri, tuberose is one of my favourite notes and
It took the combined pressure of Vidabo and Mimiboo, whose judgment I trust, for me to dig out my sample. Both were so taken I needed to know what, exactly, exerted such a pull – Vidabo compared it to what an avant-garde Guerlain could be.
It took several tests to “get” the elusive L’Air de Rien, which truly lives up to its name… In French, “l’air de rien” can be said of something that looks insignificant or valueless, deceptively easy (but could be the opposite). It can also be literally translated as something that “looks like nothing” – perhaps nothing we know. Something completely new, then, which, intriguingly, L’Air de Rien turned out to be.
Never has a composition behaved so capriciously in each encounter. The initial dab from the sample vial yielded nothing but a rather mild musk sweetened by neroli. Then a spray from a tester bottle was an outsize slap of oakmoss. Thinking my sample has gone off or come from a defective batch, I secured a second: musk again. Second spray, different tester bottle in a different shop: oakmoss redux.
Curiouser and curiouser … I turned to specialists to explain just why the two star notes refused to sit down and play together. I first contacted perfumer Vero Kern. She ventured that the difference in result was due to the difference in application: spraying would produce a much more ample development. She also suggested I contact Lyn Harris directly, which I did. She promptly responded:
“As the creator of this fragrance, I do find it totally mysterious and magical. It almost seems to behave like a wine in the way it changes and evolves so much with age and on different skins. It is a very simple composition based around oakmoss, amber, neroli, vanilla and musk as Jane wanted and had to know exactly what was in it and I never wanted to deceive her. She completely loves oakmoss on its own so this had to come through the top notes as it does as you spray but also as the composition doesn’t have a lot of top and heart notes (…) Oak moss is the least tenacious material with the neroli and so this is most prevalent when you spray and then drops away on the dry down.”
Mystery solved? Hardly. Mystery is truly at the heart of L’Air de Rien –how such a short, simple formula manages to create such depth of resonance. Almost as though the stripping of most head and middle notes, to delve directly into base notes, echoed the depth of intimate memories – and Jane Birkin is nothing if not a repository of memory, that of her long-time romantic partner and Pygmalion, singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, whom she left in 1980 but whose songs she still performs. Indeed, in the eyes of the French public, she is still predominantly known and loved as the quirky, immensely moving English ingénue muse of the greatest French-language poet of the late 20th century…
L’Air de Rien’s heavy sexual gravity belies the sweetness of the musk-neroli marriage. The balsamic bitterness of the oakmoss sets off the dark, almost medicinal facet of the musk that can be found in Middle-Eastern perfumery – say, in the Tangiers perfumer Madini’s Black Musk or Musk Gazelle blends. It is the polar opposite of the more fashionable clean white musks of Narciso Rodriguez for Her or Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely. The ingénue has aged and weathered: she may slip feet dirty from wandering in dusty rooms or moist, rich gardens into scuffed, well-loved boots, no longer willing to seduce with a bat of her gazelle eyes, but on her own, mournful, timeless, terms. Or not at all.
It is with the same mock innocence that L’air de Rien fools you into believing it is a simple musk fragrance. Musks of course have been a love of mine from ever since I recall first sampling one, a rite of passage. It was thus with a sense of exaltation that I put L’air de Rien on my skin. If nothing else it proved as unique and contradictory as the woman who inspired it. Like she said herself of her life:
"I don't know why people keep banging on about the '60s. I was very conventional because I came from a conventional family and I didn't go off with different people - I rather wish I had now, seeing all the fun everyone else was having"
If her perfume is meant to be worn “like a veil over one’s body”, then it is with Salome’s subversive power of being driven by a higher entity that one would do it. Only Salome wore multiple veils and here we only have a few: the notes of the fragrance progress so rapidly that one is confused as to the denouement.
There is cosiness and snuggliness aplenty. A strange feeling of humaness, as if a living and breathing human being has entered a dark, forgotten room in an old abandoned cottage in the Yorkshire countryside or the scriptorium in the The Name of the Rose; coincidentally among my most favourite novels (the film of course necessarily excised much of the esoterica of the book by Eco).
Like old parchment there is a bitter mustiness to L’air de Rien that gives a perverse, armospheric sexiness to the sweeter note of amber that clutches on to shadowy musk and oakmoss for dear life.
If you have secretly fantasized about having a roll on the floor of the dark kitchen in the murderous monastery of the above-mentioned film with a handsome young monk, then this is your scent. Literally nothing lay hidden underneath Valentina Vargas’ dirty cloak as she silently seduced Christian Slater with all the rough innocence of their respective youth and all the postcoital regret of the eternally unattainable.
Lacrimae mundi, tears of the world...
Click here for the famous nude scene from The Name of the Rose. Warning: Not office-suitable!