Tuesday, November 27, 2007

L'air de Rien by Miller Harris: fragrance review

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.


By Denyse Beaulieu
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

never in a thousand years would I dream of smelling like Andrew Birkin’s hair – though I enjoy the films he wrote, such as The Name of the Rose and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, his hair is not, frankly, his most appealing feature.
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.

By Elena Vosnaki
I will always remember Jane Birkin in French film of the 60s La Piscine starring Romy Schneider and Alain Delon: an erotic thriller of sorts, in which she ~long haired and surprisingly young~ moved her lithe limbs innocently doe-eyed. Her French pronunciation hilariously Brit ackward as she asked “Laquelle preferez-vous?” while rolling little pieces of bread with moist fingers into miniscule spheres, averting her eyes from Romy Schneider. This faux innocence has served her well in other roles too, such as the underneath conniving, outwardly gauche heroine of who-dunnit Evil under the Sun. In that one she even dons some other woman’s perfume to make her con more believable. We are talking about a character with perfumista clout, obviously. A scent starring oakmoss no less: one of the shining ingredients of L’air de Rien!

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!

Pic of Jane Birkin and Charles Gainsbourg sent to me by mail unaccredited. Pic of Andrew Birkin from The Telegraph 2003. Artwork by Polish illustrator Zdzisław Beksiński courtesy of BekinskiOvh.org


  1. Anonymous05:05

    Exquisite review. Musks are my favorite too. Expecially one that "exposes itself in utter animalic indecency"....nothing is plenty for me!

  2. Glad you loved it so, J and welcome to the Shrine.
    Musks are really something when done right, no?

  3. Anonymous15:47

    Ladies, I've been waiting for this collaboration for some time, and I didn't wait in vain. Excellent work from both of you, as always!
    As I'm not particularily fond of neither Jane Birkin nor the Miller Harris line, L'Air de Rien really had everything against it. Even so, that salty, murky, muskiness (so out of character for me) had me love it at first sniff.
    It's charm, for me, lies in the false simplicity, it's got "l'air de rien", but well, at the same time there's so much more going on...

  4. Dear Lisa Carol,

    thanks for the compliments. Both ma and Denyse are thrilled.

    I sense that L'air de Rien proved to be anything but Rien! It has garnered its own little fan club and what a discerning club t's proving to be ;-)

    Lovely to see you comment here, dear. Thank you for your time.

  5. Dear LisaCarol, it does seem that L'Air de Rien is insidiously addictive, doesn't it? And Helg, it's funny that you should focus on that very steamy scene from The Name of the Rose, seeing as Jane's brother wrote it. I was thinking of this torrid little danse, Birkin and Gainsbourg's inverted waltz, la Décadanse:


  6. Thanks for the clip Denyse.

    Well, I thought the "essence" of Andrew's hair was better sensed through his writing, rather than in vivo ;-)

  7. Anonymous22:44

    Oh ladies! Thanks for the mention....as you well know, I am in love, no! in lust with this fragrance. To me it is the scent of a 'human', thats why it may be unsettling to those who perhaps are not so connected to the 'animal' within? It is to me the smell on the inside of Serges chestnut brown, ancient leather jacket...take that to mean what you will - it's the scent of body, combined with nature.
    Unmentionable and ever so slightly dangerous - it's not noticed by others, however they react to it - unknowingly.
    My Holy Grail, with Scandal - for sure.

  8. What a pleasure, to read both impressions !

    I agree w/ Denyse, that this smells differently on me, each time I wear it.

    I can appreciate how one would want to smell all those comforting things about loved ones and loved places...

  9. Anonymous12:07

    I am fascinated by those images, Denyse and Helg, you make a perfect team!
    Greetings, Nina

  10. Hi Helg!

    Loved the 2 reviews. I was able to sample this one thanks to Vidabo. I wasn't sure about it. But in all fairness I was sampling other scents at the same time. I must give it another try after reading these amazing reviews.

    :) Dawn

  11. Mimiboo, you're the guilty party for sure. I was with you when I picked up the first sample of this! And your choice of Holy Grails definitely has my blessing.

    Chaya, it's strange that what Jane B. saw as a reassuring of loved ones should translate as such a powerfully erotic scent -- did you notice Serge Gainsbourg always comes up when we speak of it, but not in Jane's "brief"? He's one potent ghost...

    Nina, thank you. I'm very much enjoying this duet with Helg and I think there'll be more of it in the future!

    Dawnkana, do give it another try. It took me lots to finally "get" this haunting scent.

  12. "as a reassuring *evocation* of loved ones"... of course.

  13. Mimiboo,

    you're very welcome. And hope you like it at Perfume Shrine.
    Denyse was quite influenced by what you had to say obviously and so much the better for her! (since she found a great love)

    Scandal too! You're one minx, aren't you?

  14. Dear I,

    yes, your point about wanting to smell comforting things in one's own personal blend is very valid: obviously Jane's comfort things are very sexy! ;-)

    BTW, read your mail, didn't have time to reply *hangs head in shame* but will get to it shortly. Sorry about that.

  15. Nina,

    thanks a lot, dear. I am sure Denyse will be happy to hear that too.

  16. Dawn,

    you're flattering us, thank you so much for your kind words.

    I hope you had a lovely time in Paris and Amsterdam (what am I saying, of course you did!) and would love to hear from you again.


  17. Hi Helg and Hi Denyse...

    O.k. after reading the reviews yesterday, I orderd 2 vials ((to have enough to sample fairly)) of this from LuckyScent. They arrived today and I promptly sampled L'air de rien.

    It is deliciously dirty yet subtlety innocent & childlike.

    Part of me wants to be repulsed but a bigger part of me is intrigued by this scent.

    So, I am going to use up my samples and see how I feel about it being FBW afterwards.

    And Helg, I'll send you an email with some pics from our trip. We had a fantastic time and I was sad to leave both Paris and Amsterdam. Marvelous people, food and perfume. My senses were wildly alive in both cities.


  18. OH Dawn, we converted you!(yeah!)Good luck with the samples.

    Looking forward to the mail!!!

  19. Dawn, I'm curious to know what you got from the samples: was the musk or the oakmoss predominant? I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the variations I described in the review... Oh, and it's a pity I didn't know from PoL you were coming to Paris, I'm always there to greet fellow perfumistas!

  20. It's day two of my daily perfume journal/journey - yesterday was Coco Mademoiselle (lovely but boring to me) and today it's L'air de Rien. I'm absolutely smitten and falling in love with it! It's early in the day though - let's see how she performs by afternoon.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. I absolutely love this perfume, but it does not blend well with my skin, so I'm selling a big full bottle of it for half price on ebay: HERE

  23. I really like this blog, It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also get knowledge, from these type of blog, nice entry. Thanks

  24. "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."

    Great writing. And now I must smell this perfume. (I am thinking of a bar of unwrapped Imperial Leather soap, and slightly dirty hair washed in Prell shampoo, while eating a tangerine.)


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