Lime margaritas and leather in a perfume cocktail inspired by the history of a famous New York City street. Classicism done with a modern twist, and with the goal of subverting gender rules. Those are just two aspects of Christopher Street, a citrusy leather chypre from Charenton Macerations. Another way of describing it would be to call it a clear labour of love, as evidenced by every single one of the many details on the company’s website, from its lengthy examination of the famous street whose history and vibrancy inspired the scent, to its creator’s hard work in trying to replicate just one of the numerous elements in the fragrance. After all, how many people spend two years profiling the smell of people’s skin on a particular street, using “a modified hairdryer motor and a GC-MS fiber”?! Yet, that is precisely what Douglas Bender of Charenton Macerations did. As someone with slightly obsessive, perfectionistic tendencies myself, colour me thoroughly impressed by his efforts.
Charenton Macerations is an American artisanal company founded by Douglas Bender in 2012. Christopher Street is its first fragrance, an eau de parfum created in conjunction with Ralf Schweiger, the nose behind Lipstick Rose, Orange Sanguine, Iris Nazarena. Christopher Street was released in 2013 to much acclaim, landing on several “Best of 2013” lists, and chosen as a 2014 Finalist for Art & Olfaction‘s first awards by a panel which included Luca Turin.
To understand the inspiration and olfactory bouquet of Christopher Street, as well as the perfume’s goal of breaking gender rules and some of its notes, it may help to know something about the real-life New York City street. Charenton Macerations has an incredibly long, interesting discussion of the street, its culture, and its history on its website, including its role in the infamous Stonewall Riots of 1969 which served as a catalyst for the LGBT movement. In a nutshell, however, the street has been the home of everyone from “merchants and misfits,” to “Beatniks and Bohemians,” “homosexuals and drag queens,” with a diversity that shatters “traditional notions of gender norms.”
As an international symbol of “liberation” and of gender, sexual, and social freedom, Christopher Street impacted the perfume brief that Douglas Bender used to create the perfume. That long brief reads, in very small part, as follows:
Christopher Street will aim to introduce a distinctive fragrance structure that challenges traditional olfactive notions of gender. Unlike unisex fragrances that target a lowest common denominator, Christopher Street revels in its masculine and feminine attributes. The fragrance should combine classical floral elements with more subversive tones of metals, smoke, watered down alcohol, wet woods, clove, burnt coffee, and dark tea: An homage to the many merchants that once lined the bustling street, and how the scene might have played out as one strolled down the street. [Emphasis in the original.]
The succinct list of Christopher Street’s notes includes:
Lime, Bergamot, Bitter Orange, Leather, Tobacco, Cinnamon, Clove, “Dance on Skin”, Orange Blossom, Carnation, Incense, Moss, Musk, Myrrh, and Patchouli.
The “Dance on Skin” issue is complicated, and Charenton Macerations has a long description on its website about the accord which took two years to create. The basic bottom-line is that it seems to be something involving “happily sweating” skin, created with the goal of replicating one aspect of the real Christopher Street (its clubs):
The final composition of the “Dance on Skin” accord is a combination of these sweat tones along with a series of other olfactive notes found lingering in the surrounding spaces on Christopher Street, all joyously dancing together. It is a mixture of raw spices and dark musk, with a touch of herbaceous petrichor, whose true beauty springs to life once mixed with your own skin (as you join the dance). Ultimately, “Dance on Skin” is a multifaceted fragrance spectrum that is representative of the joy of life found on Christopher Street. [Emphasis added by me.]
As a side note, the issue of skin also comes up in terms of the packaging of Christopher Street which seems very cool indeed. The bottle comes in a cardboard tube, then wrapped in suede and with a bit of patchouli leaves crushed at the bottom of it. The attention to detail has a point, though, one which goes back to the issue of skin and its larger, philosophical or symbolic role in perfumery as a whole. As Charenton Macerations’ website explains, perfume is a union formed with our skin that becomes a part of us. In the same way, Christopher Street comes wrapped in the “skin” of suede leather.
Christopher Street opens on my skin with a powerful blast of lemon and lime alcohol, just like a salty margarita. It is followed by a good bit of cloves and carnation, a wave of mossy greenness, dark musk, and a dash of juicy orange. There is also a slightly metallic, vaguely dusty synthetic note that reminds me strongly of some sort of nitrous oxide gas, perhaps like something you’d have at the dentist, only this one is thoroughly imbued with the flavour of lime margaritas.
The main bouquet is quickly followed by subtle flickers of other notes. There is a touch of sweetness, and the faintest suggestion of a very abstract orange blossom. The latter feels translucent, but also like the fruit of the tree mixed with the zesty bitterness of its grated peel and a lot of tangy lime. Lurking in the shadows is the tobacco which is extremely subtle on my skin. So, too, is the leather which seems more like the vague impression of something suggesting “leather” for much of first few hours.
Within minutes, there are subtle changes to the composition. The clove becomes more noticeable but, instead of the usual spice, it feels more like a salty star anise note that is thoroughly mixed into the dominant lime margarita accord.
What appeals to me is something else entirely: a lurking whiff of something animalic. It’s not sweaty, raunchy, stale, urinous, fecal, or even much like skin at all. Rather, it’s like the subtlest impression of a dark muskiness with the most microscopic suggestion of earthiness. On Twitter, Mr. Bender told me it was due to the interplay between the leather and the skin accord. Whatever the source, it’s super, though I noticed that Christopher Street was much less animalic and leathery when I applied a larger dosage, and more focused on the Key Lime cocktail bouquet.
I’m much less enthused by the synthetic note which I assume is meant to replicate the metal and street aspects described in Mr. Bender’s perfume brief as quoted above. In addition to the dentistry nitrous gas, it reminds me strongly of both asphalt and metal. One of the few reviews on Fragrantica for Christopher Streets says: “I swear I even get a whiff of amyl nitrate which was a mainstay along this boulevard back in the day.” I believe those are known as “poppers” in slang, a sort of aphrodisiac drug that Wikipedia says was a big part of the 70’s disco scene, as well as the ’80s club one. I’m not familiar with the smell, but I would bet that the Fragrantica commentator and I are detecting the same note.
On my skin, the aromachemical was extremely profound when I applied more of Christopher Street, and I had rather a bad reaction to it. It constantly irritated the back of my throat with its raspy, scratchy aridity, and even gave me a headache at one point when I sniffed the perfume up close for too long. It very successfully evokes images of dry asphalt and concrete in a city street where cars are radiating heat from their burning metal hulks, so it’s clever, but I’m not enthused.
For almost the first 3 hours, the note is thoroughly intertwined with every part of the fresh, crisp, lime margarita that dominates the scent on my skin, so it’s a bit hard to get away from it. Interestingly, someone who smelled me during one of my tests of Christopher Street thought it was a “dusty, smoky” note which added to the whole “club scene” vibe of the perfume. “Cocktails and smoke,” they said. I didn’t find it smoky or anything resembling cigarettes, but its extremely desiccated nature might create an impression of dustiness for some. In any event, most of you know my issues with aromachemicals, so let’s move on.
Christopher Street’s main visuals for the first few hours is of enormous greenness, thanks as much to the mossy note as to the lime margaritas. I find the moss to be an unusual element in its treatment here. Christopher Street is clearly a chypre in both structure and elements, but the moss feels very different in a way that is a bit hard to explain. The note is simultaneously classic, abstract, and deconstructed, all at the same time. It is a subtle mossiness at times that doesn’t overwhelm you with immediate thoughts of “chypre moss”, but yet it’s very hard to escape the immediate sense that you’re smelling a rather classic perfume that is wholly a chypre. The moss doesn’t feel strongly solid and concrete, but yet, at the same time, it does, perhaps because it is also amplified by the lime. It’s not plush, verdantly fresh, or fusty and mineralized like old-school moss, either. And yet, it is all of those things at once.
In fact, one of the hardest things for me to try to explain about Christopher Street is how all the individual elements (other than the very powerful lime margarita accord) feel simultaneously like a mercurial ghost, but a solid force at once. It’s not just the mossiness which is abstract, deconstructed, and solid, all at the same time. The same thing applies to various parts of the perfume which waft in and out, making their presence known even if you can’t always pinpoint their shape solidly. The perfume has a clear floral touch, but it’s usually difficult to pull out the orange blossom which generally lurks on the sidelines. There is also an immediate sense that you’re smelling a Chypre or, to a lesser extent, a leather fragrance, and yet… you’re not, because there is such a dominant wave of fresh, crisp, bracing lime margarita.
In fact, every single time that I’ve worn Christopher Street, I’m reminded of some famous, vintage, classic green, leathery perfume, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. The first time I tried the scent about a month ago, it drove me almost mad trying to figure out what it reminded me of. (Alix Gres’ vintage Cabochard, maybe?) So, I went to my parents — aka, the Ultimate Perfume Snobs who initially taught me much of what I know — and the first words out of my mother’s mouth was, “It reminds me of something I used to wear.” No, she can’t figure out the resemblance, either (though she did wear Cabochard), but part of my point is that Christopher Street is a wonderfully clever reinvention of the classics with a very modern, fresh twist. It is classic in more ways than merely being a very solidly green chypre, and, yet, it is not. It is absolutely modern, from its desiccated asphalt, its “poppers,” and its fresh, zesty, salty margarita notes.
I find that very impressive, as I do much else about the construction of Christopher Street. The very fact that I’m having such enormous difficulty explaining the nature of the moss element — and, as you will see, the upcoming leather and suede tonalities in the scent — all point to a perfume that is brilliantly done, with seamless layers, superb blending, and talented craftsmanship. Christopher Street often smells very simple and, on my skin, can sometimes be boiled down to a nutshell formulation of “margarita lime leather,” but its simplicity is deceptive, in my opinion. If you really pay close attention, you will see far more layers, and a very sophisticated construction, especially in how its mercurial, seemingly insubstantial notes dart about, or are hard to pin down solidly.
By and large, much of the first hour of Christopher Street is devoted to the dominant duo of lime margarita and “nitrous oxide”-like, metal-concrete accord, but the leather does eventually appear. At the end of the first hour and the start of the second, Christopher Street slowly starts to shift. Up to then, the leather was more like a very nebulous abstraction, and an extremely thin layer deep in the base. It starts to seep up to the surface slowly, though. The first significant intimations of it occur about 90 minutes into the perfume’s development when Christopher Street starts to develop a growing creaminess in the base. It reminds me of thick suede, but it lacks the iris tonalities that create many “suede” notes in perfumery. It’s not like skin, either, per se, but more of a plush, velvety feel.
Around the same time, the lime margarita finally stops blasting its loud song, the incense pops up its head in the background, and the perfume’s notes begin to overlap. They blur seamlessly together, from the “leather” impression to the moss, lime to smokiness, cloves to some tiny wisp of intangible floralcy. Subtle animalic twinges dart in and out. By the start of the second hour, there are no cloves, tobacco, orange blossom, carnation, or orange, only a lime-covered leather with margarita elements, oakmoss, and a touch of dry, dusty smokiness, all over a layer of creaminess.
I think the latter is absolutely fantastic. It’s a thin layer that somehow feels thick, really luxurious, and with opulent smoothness of the sort that I’ve encountered only with some tonka, vanilla, or almond scents. None of those aromas are here, though, which makes it hard to describe what is happening, but it’s something beyond a mere textural element. It’s also far from the “happily sweating” skin that Mr. Bender sought to replicate. And it’s much deeper than mere suede, unless it’s the thickest suede mixed with cashmere. It has to be the interplay of the skin and leather elements, refined to a luxurious degree.
More traditional leather finally makes an appearance on center stage at the end of the 3rd hour and the start of the fourth. In fact, the suede note retreats to the sidelines, and pure leather replaces it. Up to then, I’d been highly doubtful that Christopher Street contained any of the elements that perfumers usually use to recreate the smell or impression of leather in perfumery. Generally speaking, those elements are: birch tar, cade, and something called quinoline. By the middle of the 4th hour, the last of those suddenly and most definitely swooshes onto center stage.
For those of you unfamiliar with the note, The Perfume Shrine has a wonderful, succinct explanation. Elena Vosnaki begins by saying that “[r]endering a leather note in perfumery is a challenge for the perfumer[,]” and that what is “actually used” to create that olfactory impression are vegetal or synthetic ingredients which can include birch tar, juniper cade and quinoline. With regard to the latter, Elena Vosnaki writes:
The major revolution in the production of leathery notes in perfumery came in the 1880s with the apparition of quinolines, a family of aromachemicals with a pungent leather and smoke odour that was used in the production of the modern Cuir de Russie scents appearing at the beginning of the 20th century such as Chanel’s (1924) as well as in Caron’s Tabac Blond (1919), Lanvin’s Scandal (1933) and, most importantly, Piguet’s Bandit (1944). […][¶]
isobutyl quinoline … possesses a fiercely potent odour profile described as earthy, rooty, and nutty, echoing certain facets of oakmoss and vetiver and blending very well with both. Isobutyl quinoline also has ambery, woody, tobacco-like undertones: a really rich aromachemical! Its character can be very well perceived in the above scents as well as Cabochard by Gres.[Emphasis to names added by me.]
Christopher Street is a fragrance that contains both oakmoss and tobacco, even if the latter is virtually nonexistent as a significant element on my skin, so it’s likely that the quinoline in question is the Isobutyl variety. The leather which eventually appears in Christopher Street isn’t “fiercely potent,” “rooty,” or “nutty,” but it does possess a subtle earthiness in its musky profile, as well as a quiet smokiness. It’s not the powerful tarry, blackened smokiness of birch tar leather, it’s not horsey or cow leather, and it’s certainly far from the rawness of some fragrances, but I suspect that Mr. Bender and Ralf Schweiger have used a touch of isobutyl quinoline, then smoothed it out to an incredibly refined state with the “dancing on skin” accord, creaminess, and suede. Like the oakmoss, the leather sometimes feels incredibly substantial and solid. At other times, it feels almost deconstructed in its smooth subtlety, and the mercurial way that it weaves in and out of the scent.
The leather’s innate darkness is now backed by something else as well. Christopher Street turns much smokier at the end of the 5th hour. There is incense which has a surprising bite to it, perhaps from some aromachemical. It’s hard to explain, like much else with this perfume, but it’s not the sort of incense smoke that you’d find in an Amouage fragrance. It’s not cigarette or birch tar smokiness, either. The only way I can explain it is to call it “incense with a peppered, dry bite.” The leather is still covered with lime margarita, but it’s now a thin layer instead of hardcore margarita alcohol.
Christopher Street’s focus starts to slowly change. At the start of the 6th hour, the perfume is largely a creamy lime-leather infused with biting smokiness. Two hours later, it is just creamy leather and suede, lightly flecked with wisps of lime, incense, and animalic muskiness. They eventually fade away, leaving only a thin layer of vaguely smoky suede. Both stages are lovely, but the final one is particularly enjoyable.
Christopher Street has great projection and longevity. Using 3 small sprays from my small atomizer (amounting to 2 sprays from an actual bottle), the perfume was a very light, airy, but strong cloud that initially wafted 2-3 inches above the skin. However, to my surprise, I noticed that Christopher Street seemed to grow in volume and was soon radiating about 5 inches after about 20 minutes. The numbers dropped back to 2-3 inches after 90 minutes, but Christopher Street only became a skin scent on me at the end of the 5th hour. It was still incredibly easy to detect up close for the next few hours, though. All in all, the perfume lasted just over 14 hours, though it was just the thinnest gauzy sliver after the 10th hour and I had to put my nose actually on the skin to detect it.
Using a smaller amount yielded similarly good numbers. One good spritz from my tiny atomizer, equivalent to a single but very small spray from a bottle, initially gave me 2-3 inches in projection as well. The numbers didn’t balloon up, but consistently stayed there until the end of the 3rd hour when Christopher Street hovered almost right on the skin. The perfume essentially stayed there until the 8th hour, and it only died away completely 10.75 hours from the start. For one spray from a small atomizer, and with my wonky skin, that’s very good, though I must stress that the perfume is quite airy in weight and feel.
As noted above, Christopher Street debuted to great acclaim, and it’s generally received very positive reviews from bloggers. Bois de Jasmin gave it Four Stars, calling it “a proper, old-school chypre” that somehow managed to include every one of the elements that Douglas Bender intended, from the metal to the smoke, spices, patchouli, and alcoholic cocktail. Her long review reads, in part, as follows:
I can smell all of it. How many times does this happen in this new world of vague, watery fragrances? Next to never? Christopher Street drugged my nose from the first sniff. Up came the moss, the myrrh, the patchouli, through a haze of hot spices and raw tobacco. […] It’s a wonderful sniff and I am glad that the tea and coffee notes never appear. I’d much rather the citrus and cigarettes, but that’s a personal preference.
There is indeed an alcoholic haze at the top of Christopher Street through which one must wander, an effect I particularly like because of a personal fondness for margaritas (on the rocks, salt). Tobacco is more prominent to me than leather, but it’s a suave and mild-mannered tobacco more associated with gentlemen’s clubs than with sweaty discos.
Orange blossom and carnation act as complementary notes in a quiet, background way. They are subsumed to that positively thrilling base where you encounter the classic chypre foundation with lingering flickers of orange and bergamot. For such a novel fragrance, the base is firmly seated in the past, among classic chypres that waft about like pipe dreams in our memories.
For The Non-Blonde, citrus and spice-enriched tobacco were the dominant elements as well. Her review describes Christopher Street as rich and complex, with “beguiling” aspects, including the very restrained suggestion of leather. Though she thought the “tobacco, clove, and dry patchouli play a major part in Christopher Street,” it was the fresh, bitter lime cocktail that was the “vivid,” “exuberant” statement piece of the scent which
lasted “12 hours and then some” on her skin. She concluded that “Christopher Street is civilized, tasteful and very approachable, while still offering us a lot of substance.” I would quote her review in full, but I fear my own post is getting too long as it is, so I encourage you to read her thoughts in full.
The lovely Victoria of EauMG might be one of was Christopher Street’s most passionate fans, writing in part:
Blast of tipsy green citrus shielding a spicy leather. Sweat dripping off skin. Clove cigarette smoke. Cumin sprinkled orange blossoms. Acrid incense. Damp alleys. Smoky patchouli. Dusty bookshops. Skin-like musk. This is my kind of fragrance.
Christopher Street has a vintage feel reminding me of popular fragrances of the 1960′s and early 1970′s; however, it has more “umph” and a certain sense of “otherness” making it unique. It’s aggressive, not angry, but it’s proactive. It’s the longest wearing citrus heavy fragrance on the planet. […][¶]
Give Christopher Street a try if you are looking for a citrus with a backbone. Or if you like perfumes like Vero Profumo Mito, LUSH Dear John, Child Heir, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet, Caron 3rd Man and/or Lancome Magie Noir (the vintage stuff). Christopher Street is unisex leaning more towards the masculine (in comparison to mainstream perfumes). I like to wear it when I’m dolled up in femme clothing and red lipstick. […]
Sillage baby. Projection and longevity are above average.
Opening this bottle really is an experience. Every detail is planned out and it also has the “secret society” feel (works with the story here). The bottle comes in a cardboard tube and is wrapped in suede. At the bottom of the tube is a sachet of dried patchouli leaves. It’s a multi-sensory experience of texture and smells. It’s world rocking. What other brands are paying this much attention to detail? [Emphasis to names added by me.]
However, The Scented Hound was not quite as enthused. Something about the scent gave him a headache when he smelled it up close, just as it did for me when I sniffed it for too long. In addition, Christopher Street began with a sour, salty citric note that felt like “petroleum” and being kicked by Doc Martins, before turning primarily into a sour orange blossom fragrance on his skin. It was a scent that he summarized as “sharp, raw, bold,” and with separated layers that seemed to pull in different directions. His review reads, in part, as follows:
Christopher Street opens with a fig like citrus that has this swirling effect on my skin. It also has this semi-petroleum like kick to it. Hmmm, in other words, it’s a like a ripened bag of oranges and lemons being kicked by a pair of Doc Martens. After a few minutes there’s a bit of sourness to that comes to surface. It’s salty and sweaty, like the mix of sweat and body odor from a hot day mixed with the coolness of the air conditioning when you step inside. It’s kind of repulsive, but there’s something rather natural about it which isn’t too off putting. But with all this sweat, you would think that the fragrance would run hot…but it doesn’t, it’s rather cool. After around 10 minutes, the soured orange remains, but the sweaty aspects start to dissipate as they’re replaced with an undercurrent of oakmoss and warmer hues of subtle spice. At this point the fragrance is almost split in two as it seems to have this top aura that sits like an orb on top of grounded spice. It’s odd in that the various layers of the fragrance seem to pull from the middle moving in opposite directions. After around an hour there is something remote about Christopher Street. It projects and has power for a citrus scent, but there is nothing soft there as it’s bold and rather removed. After a couple of hours, I get a slight appearance of leather, but just barely. For the most part I am left with this sour orange citrus sitting on a base of very dry oakmoss.
I found my friend’s review to be incredibly interesting in his feeling that the perfume was simultaneously “bold” but “removed.” I suspect it is that odd dichotomy which I referenced earlier about Christopher Street’s mercurial nature, its solidity but nebulous abstractness, as well as the deconstructed feel of some of its notes which are there but, as The Scented Hound put it, “remote” as well.
What’s also interesting to me is that all the bloggers note the powerful citrus element, many talk about the tobacco (including the generally positive review at Now Smell This), but few experienced much leather. I think part of it is skin chemistry, and part of it is the dichotomy at the heart of Christopher Street. As I noted earlier, if you look closely beyond the primary lime margarita facade, the layers are mercurial and can sometimes feel “remote.” However, there was definitely leather on my skin by the end, even if it’s a different sort of leather than the kind we’re accustomed to in many leather fragrances with their more traditional birch tar facets. Still, I have to emphasize that if you’re expecting either a hardcore leather fragrance or a pure, typical, classical chypre, you may be disappointed. Christopher Street is not any one thing, but deconstructed layers of different classical models, put back together with a fresh, modern twist.
At the end of the day, I personally could never wear Christopher Street myself due to my intense reaction to the “poppers”/nitrous-like note, but I think it is incredibly clever, if not brilliant, on a technical and symbolical level. Christopher Street may appear simple, but it’s definitely not. It is, however, very wearable in all its stages, unless you share my acute sensitivity to the more desiccated aromachemicals, in which case the first 2.75 hours may be a bit difficult. But the third and fourth stages, especially when the creaminess appears, are lovely and well worth some patience.
In short, if you like zesty citrus scents, classical chypres, tobacco or leather fragrances, or some combination thereof, you should give Christopher Street a try.