Maison de L'Asie and the Subtle Art of Fragrant Stories
I received a set of samples from a new fragrance house, Maison de L'Asie, a few months back, and I've spent time getting acquainted with these perfumes. In my experience of getting to know new scents, I've found that different perfumes need different amounts of time for their lives to be understood. The three perfumes that represent the opening "Chapter 1" of Maison de L'Asie embody a rare quality of refined curiosity - a combined delicacy with distinction. It makes them memorable, and yet they haunt us, too. The brand's creator, Elizabeth Liau, has an unusual gift for telling stories that shift, in the same way that a curtain fills with wind and then lies flat again - at first full of form, and then a fleeting memory.
Liau is from Singapore, the island nation of quite a fascinating history, and one of the most ambitiously developed countries in the world - considered to be one of the "four tigers" of Asia (along with South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) for its exponential growth in the latter 20th century. It's also a nation of many ethnicities and religions, as represented in its broad spectrum of groups including Chinese, Malay, and Indian. This mingling of identities is a curious mirror to Liau herself, who has lived in and traveled to many places, including Australia, South America, and the cities of London, New York, and Paris. She's woven many of these experiences into her storytelling through the medium of fragrance, yet one can't help but think that her home country of Singapore breathes through most of these perfumes, where the winds of many shores rush across, collide, and form new apparitions in the air.
Maison de L'Asie introduced its line with three perfumes as part of the brand's story. This is Chapter 1, and more chapters will follow. It's a compelling way to weave together a narrative, by showing us three elements all within one chapter. From the start we're given a lot of information. It makes me very curious to know what Chapter 2 will be like. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves, and spend some time with these perfumes.
Nanyang is a fragrance about tea, but a very certain kind of tea, and in a certain kind of space - in fact, it's tea from a certain time as well. As Maison de L'Asie says, "Nanyang [is] a sophisticated tea fragrance that pays homage to old Singapore. Nanyang is a distinct and androgynous fragrance inspired by the South Seas and Chinese diaspora..." One of my first impressions when I smelled Nanyang was the sense of something otherworldly, like an apothecary jar lost in time that holds rare (possibly extinct) tea leaves; the kind that a grandmother might hold for very special times - not something you'd drink everyday. And mixed in with this smell are the smells of the passage of years, maybe even decades - very distinct and powerful smells that have mellowed and worn gracefully - saffron, leather, sandalwood, musk.
The smell of tea is much more like tea leaves or powdered leaves held in a leather case, as opposed to a sugary cup of tea with milk. Mixed with a very gentle jasmine essence and some pepper, the whole experience has a savory, slightly mentholic, evergreen quality. This is a very adult perfume, with a musty quality that speaks to the refinement of previous generations. In that grace, however, is that aforementioned ghostly presence. There is some of it in every Maison de L'Asie fragrance (the idea of "the otherness" floating in and out...) but it's most present in Nanyang, like generations of a bygone age letting their voices be heard.
Nanyang has a very prominent leather character, and it melds wonderfully with tea. Together, they make up the bulk of the smell, all else provides the details like delicate shadows and pale colors. You would wear Nanyang for a formal daytime affair, or a day at the office, or for some reflective time when you're traveling by yourself. I notice that this wears particularly well when it reacts with the sun and air, so it wants you to move around. When you sit with it alone, it has a smoky sandalwood side that begs to waft around in the environment. It's as if the tea has been left in the leather case for so long and finally wants to be shaken loose.
Top notes: Green tea, bergamot, pepper, lemon
Middle notes: Jasmine, saffron, incense
Base notes: Leather, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, white musk
Mother x Love became my favorite of the three perfumes, and I may never know exactly why. Again, I blame the spirits that seem to swirl around these perfumes. The very moment it emerged from the blotter, a glorious note of litchi pealed forth like a sharp brass bell, but it was immediately rounded out by the wonderfully subtle notes that litchi embodies: gentle milkiness, pale grapes, bits of rosé wine, a faint citrus note, a bit of pineapple, and the hint of walnut in the base. Right after this friendly litchi, so much else opens along with it - a wet and tangy ginger, an ethereal vanilla (much more like the dry and airy Tahitian variety), and gentle, sweeter magnolia blossoms.
Through some very curious perfume trickery, the base notes of suede and musk come to the center rather quickly and form a kind of softly milky floral musk. This envelops you quickly, with very warm hands. I can understand that the narrative metaphor at play is the protective love of a mother, but the sensation really does occur within the perfume as well. Some perfumes make us bold, and others draw us in and rock us back and forth - clearly, we've succumbed to the second case and we're almost ready to fall into a very peaceful slumber.
Mother x Love undergoes fascinating changes on the skin as it's worn - it evolves from something bright and citrus-filled to milky and heliotrope-powdery, and then finally to a soapy jasmine with sweet and gentle musk at the very end. Jasmine makes its presence known very late in the perfume, but its timing is perfect - it shows up just when it should, softly, persistently, with the faintest touch of suede. The closing of Mother x Love darkens just enough to become a bit more serious and thoughtful near the end, but it retains its fresh litchi-and-magnolia elements to the last moments. This fragrance has such an unusual profile (I've really not smelled anything like it before,) that I was chasing ideas in my mind about what I thought I was smelling. It has the olfactive quality of when we catch ourselves daydreaming and small flashes of memory momentarily take us away to sometime in our past, and we awaken again in the moment.
Top notes: Ginger, vanilla, litchi
Middle notes: Saffron, magnolia, pepper, jasmine, mandarin orange
Base notes: Jasmine, musk, suede
The final perfume of Chapter 1 within the Maison de L'Asie line is Lost Lovers. By looking at its note breakdown, you would not think to link it to the gourmand family, and yet it squarely falls there, dominated by a full and sweet amber-orange flower center. This is counteracted by a note of dry vetiver which, mixed together, makes a yin and yang balance of elements. Other notes seem to fall on each side of this as well - the violet is milky and sweet, as are the jasmine and musk, while a spice accord, rose blossoms, and bergamot are distinctly sharp and full of zest. There is so much at work within this perfume that one could take many detours with the nose: alkaline iris-violet, velvety white musk, dry and vanilla-infused vetiver.
The brand copy for the perfume is particularly striking: "Lost lovers represents an intensity of emotion and feeling, evocative of falling in and out of love throughout the years." It's not often that a fragrance story acknowledges the (very real) notion of falling out of love - we're usually conditioned to forget about that part when it comes to perfume. Yet when I read that line, I was struck by how real that sensation is, and why it makes the feeling of love so much more potent - don't we feel it more strongly when we know its opposite as well? It reflects again this push and pull, the back and forth of senses, just as my nose found itself adjusting to a shifting palette of sweet amber and smoky, salty vetiver.
The balance is met well, and held delicately - just enough of a grasp, but never a rough fist trying to control an overflow of emotions. On the skin, Lost Lovers hits a high note just as the center is reached and a bit of cedar becomes more apparent. Nearly every note is detectable at this time, and it's at turns darkly woody, then floral, then brightly citrusy. I'm compelled to compare this to a "love affair" but after smelling this awhile, I think the story arc is far longer - like a person who is in your life for a long, long time, and you experience so many of their moods alongside yours. This sensation is analogous to the bouquet of smells within Lost Lovers. On the surface, it is a spice-amber perfume that many would find appealing, but just dip beneath that and subtle shifts reveal complex interconnections which make our attachment all the more enmeshed. It's a profound complexity.
Top notes: Bergamot, rose, myrtle, orange flower
Middle notes: Violet, jasmine, sandalwood, cedar
Base notes: Spices, amber, white musk, vetiver
What's special about Maison de L'Asie is the impression that remains after you've worn these perfumes. There is a difference between a nice smell and an enveloping presence that takes you away to another place. A number of times I found myself pleasantly lost among wafts of musk and vanilla, or white flower petals, leather, and tea leaves. And instead of thinking about other perfumes, I was brought to different shores, asked to partake in someone else's memories. It's not often, in perfume, that a door is held open for us and we're asked politely to enter.
Maison de L'Asie fragrances are available at the Maison de L'Asie website, and range in price from $165 to $265 USD, with other pricing options for sets, samples, and a room spray.
John Biebel Writer
John Biebel (johngreenink) is a painter, writer and software designer currently living and working in Rhode Island, US. He is a graduate of the Cooper Union in New York City where he received his BFA in painting and photography. He currently divides his time between work in user experience design, painting, and his independent perfume company, January Scent Project. He has particular interest in perfume chemistry and the history of perfume making.
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