Angel by Thierry Mugler: why great perfumes smell like death

The overripe, almost rotting melon smell of Diorella by Christian Dior is widely considered to be one of the greatest perfumes ever produced.

Let that sink in.

Diorella, which smells like overripe, about-to-rot melons is widely considered to be one of the greatest perfumes of all time.

It may sound strange, but it isn’t unusual. In fact it’s a phenomenon so well documented that it became the basis for a scene in American Hustle; with Jennifer Lawrence’s character commenting:

There’s this top coat that you can only get from Switzerland, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do because I’m running out of it but I love the smell of it… Irving and I can’t get enough of it. There’s something…the top coat…it’s like perfumey but there’s also something rotten? And I know that sounds crazy but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, it’s true! Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty and foul.

— or, as it’s put in the Barbara Herman review that’s thought to have inspired the speech: “Diorella shows you how to find beauty in the intersection of garbage and flowers. I know this doesn’t sound like an endorsement, but it is”

Try Diorella in Boots today and you’ll get just a hint of the funky note that made the pre-2009 formulation a classic, but dig for it — dig below what Chandler Burr fondly described as “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste”, keep on digging and your stomach will find it: the smell of yesterday’s melons. It’s an overripe note that, once glimpsed, can’t be avoided.

Once you’ve finished digging into Diorella, turn your nose to Angel by Thierry Mugler. You needn’t dig with Angel: it will dig into you. This is the perfume that kick-started the ‘gourmand’ genre of fragrances — perfumes which ground their scent in ultra-loud synthetic edibles — and Angel did it by packing such a sugary punch that everything since has felt lack-lustre and lame. If Angel were actually edible, even Slush Puppie would think its candied pineapple was a bit OTT. The surprising thing is that it manages to be so sacrilegiously excessive while still leaving you hungry for more.

How? Musk, rot and damp earth.

Tania Sanchez puts it like this, in her excellent review for ‘Perfumes: The A-Z Guide’:

“Although Angel is sold as a gourmand for girls, spoken of as if it were a fudge-dipped berry in a confectioner’s shop, it’s all lies. Look for Angel’s Adam’s apple: a handsome, resinous, woody patchouli, straight out of the pipes-and-leather-slippers realm of men’s fragrance… The effect kills the possibility of cloying sweetness, despite megadoses of the cotton-candy smell of ethylmaltol”

The candy floss and fruit grab your nose, but the smell of sodden-earth is what grabs your heart; making the overall fragrance akin to a pineapple that’s well on its way to compost. Angel is black comedy: it looks like a cheap laugh, but it packs a deathly punch. Once you’ve caught the smell of that sweet/rotten conflict, you’ll keep coming back.

Sanchez goes on:

“Angel [is left] in a high-energy state of contradiction. Many perfumes are beautiful or pleasant, but how many are exciting? Like a woman in a film who seethes, “He’s so annoying!” and marries him in the end, I returned to smell Angel so many times I had to buy it.”

You won’t have enough breath for this perfume, because there’s something moreish about that kick of rotten pineapple. Death is unsettling. It’s bewitching. It’s unresolved. You’ll breathe it until your lungs are full and then try to breathe some more. You’ll drink it in until your ribs crack under the volume, but your mouth will keep gulping; hungry for the resolution that you need.

Many perfumes have tried to mimic Angel, but they all seem to miss the point: they either tone down the rot or they abandon it completely. Angel’s copy-cats are all 10-tonne flowers and sweetness with no tension, nothing to resolve. These are the perfume equivalent of a one-line story: “once upon a time everyone lived happily ever after” — lies rendered vulgar by lack of aspiration.

Angel isn’t beautiful. It isn’t even necessarily pleasant — but it is exciting. Angel asks a question: what could be? What could happen if death was undone? Angel is the smell of hope.

Like Angel, hope is moreish and bewitching. It’s sweet, but genuine hope is never sugar-coated or saccharine — it smells like garbage and flowers; its sweetness looks death square in the face. If your hope doesn’t smell like death then it lacks aspiration: it hasn’t gotten it’s hands dirty to deal with the reality of this world.

The most beautiful things on earth are dying, turning to compost underneath our feet. You can try and out-shout that uneasy fact, masking reality with a slug of 10-tonne sweetness as though that deals with the problem, but the end result will leave your mouth dry.

The sweetness of hope is a deeper sweetness, and it smells like rotting pineapples. Why? Because rotting fruit is the universe’s way of telling us that life can come out of death: ‘unless a pineapple falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

Perhaps that reworking of some of Jesus’ last words seems a bit on the nose. Sacrilegious, even. But the sweetest thing to walk the earth was about to taste blood and death.

This Angel is not saccharine. He’s spoken of as though he were a meek and mild hypochondriac, but don’t believe the lies. His hands are dirty and he smells like death. Once you’ve caught hold of him you’ll never be able to get enough.