The Purple Rose of Cairo. The old movie title seems like the best description for a much beloved perfume where the rose is purple from patchouli and dark berries, and Cairo represents the strong backbone of incense smoke. The perfume is Portrait of a Lady (often shortened to just “PoaL“), an eau de parfum from the luxury fragrance house, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle.
Portrait of a Lady was created by Dominique Ropion, one of the most well-respected, famous noses around, and was released in 2010. The Frederic Malle website describes the fragrance as:
a new breed of oriental rose, a baroque perfume. It is based on an accord of benzoin, cinnamon, sandalwood and, above all patchouli, musk and frankincense. It takes off with an excessive dosage of the best Turkish rose essence that Dominique Ropion linked to the rest of the formula, thanks to a red berries and spice accord. After hundreds of trials needed to balance such an excessive formula (Portrait of a Lady is undoubtedly the perfume containing the strongest dosage of rose essence and patchouli heart), a rare symphonic perfume appeared: a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic: Portrait of a Lady.
Fragrantica classifies the fragrance as a floral Oriental, and lists its notes as follows:
Turkish rose, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, incense, ambroxan, benzoin and white musk.
Portrait of a Lady opens on my skin with the familiar strains of a jammy rose. It is intensely fruited with raspberries that feel almost candied and syrupy, along with a hint of tart, juicy cassis (otherwise known as black currant). The flower is full-bodied, rich, infused with patchouli to its core, and as dark as the finest wine, but it is also set on fire with dry, smoky incense. The flower actually feels so thick with dark, purple patchouli that it evokes images of crimson blood dripping into dry, arid Arabian sands that have been swirled into a storm of incense. Whispers of clove add a subtle spiciness and, in conjunction with the dry smoke, help ensure that Portrait of a Lady is never cloyingly sweet.
At its core, Portrait of a Lady is a simple fragrance of rose supported by twin pillars of patchouli and smoke. And it never really changes from that essential characteristic. The notes may vary in prominence or strength, and the background elements certainly become less noticeable as time goes by, but Portrait of a Lady can really be summed up as nothing more than fruited, jammy, patchouli rose infused with dry incense. It’s a well-done triptych of notes that eventually turns into a bipartisan interplay of incense and patchouli, but that’s really about it.
Portrait of a Lady has been largely imitated by many similar, jammy, incense purple rose fragrances since then, but it really doesn’t knock my socks off. So, I’ll spare you the lengthy, moment-by-moment analysis of how minimal the clove is on my skin, how long the raspberry lasts in an additional surfeit of fruitedness that I did not enjoy, or how it ends up creating a sour note that lingers well into the perfume’s final moments. I’ll avoid getting into the details of just how much purple patchouli there is in Portrait of a Lady, how it becomes a skin scent on me less than 3.75 hours into the perfume’s development, how there are subtle elements of something synthetic in the base (perhaps thanks to the Ambroxan), or the way there is a weirdly soapy tinge to the fragrance for a few hours.
The simple nutshell story is that, on me, Portrait of a Lady started as a conventional jammy rose with incense and endless heapings of purple, purple, purple, fruited patchouli. I really dislike purple patchouli, and there is a hell of a lot of it here. Portrait of a Lady then took less than 4 hours to turn into a somewhat dry, very subdued, completely muted blur of simple patchouli and incense with an endlessly lingering, unpleasant hint of sourness before it finally died away. It’s a fragrance that lasted just over 9.25 hours on me, and that I found to be tolerably nice. It was also, however, unoriginal, linear, painfully purple and fruited, and wholly boring. I certainly don’t think it’s worth the high Malle prices.
However, I’m hugely in the minority on my lack of enthusiasm for Portrait of a Lady. The fragrance is much adored; in fact, it is many people’s ideal, perfect rose. Some even consider it to be a “naughty” rose, an impression or association that never once crossed my mind. In truth, I am starting to think that Frederic Malle is a brand that simply doesn’t do much for me; thus far, I haven’t been impressed by a single one that I’ve tried. So, I shall put on my “Cone of Shame” (to borrow an apt, recent phrase from Lucas of Chemist in a Bottle), and slink to my corner. Mea culpa.