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When I first heard of Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums, it was early in 2009, and the reviews I noticed were for En Passant, the ethereal scent of green notes, lilac, and bread, and for Carnal Flower, the glowing white floral. Someone on Now Smell This mentioned going to the Malle website and filling out a questionnaire in order to receive a sample, and my ears perked up. I don’t live within ten hours’ drive of a location selling Malle fragrances, so I thought I’d try the website. I filled out the very nosy, somewhat incomprehensible questionnaire (“What clothing designers do you favor?” Uh, none.) and received a recommendation for Iris Poudre. I promptly discarded the suggestion: I’m not a big iris fan, and I don’t care for scents that remind me of baby powder, I said to myself. The second suggestion was for Une Fleur de Cassie, but that one sounded difficult too. I ignored the recommendation.

A few months later, after having tried En Passant and found it pleasant but not an emotional experience, I filled out the Malle website questionnaire again. This time the suggestions were for Iris Poudre and Lipstick Rose. I reply-emailed the Malle rep with a question about how I could find samples. “You could order them,” he said. “We sell them on the website.” Uh, thanks for your time, Philippe.

I did finally find a sample of Carnal Flower, and discovered it to be fully as wonderful as I had expected. I tried Lipstick Rose and thought it silly; I tried Lys Mediterranee and liked its salty aquatic lily. Une Rose charmed me at first with its stunningly lovely rose note, and then its woody amber base started chasing me around the house with a machete.

And then a friend sent me a sample of Iris Poudre that hadn’t suited her. I checked the reviews on Iris Poudre, which mostly said things like, “very girly,” “my dressed-up date-night fragrance,” “a pinup scent,” as well as “not very irisy.” I looked again at the notes listed: iris, sandalwood, vetiver, tonka bean, musk, vanilla. I don’t even like iris that much, I said to myself again. Or vetiver, for that matter. I sighed. I spritzed the sample.

And fell, hard. The snowy sparkle of aldehydes charmed me. The cool-warm character of the woody-vanilla base seduced me. Although no floral notes are listed at all, I seem to smell a faint sweetness of rose and jasmine; the satin of iris hides under the smoothness of sandalwood, tonka and musk. The whole thing is cream-colored and lovely, fluffy as angora. It lasts four to five hours on me, on the short end of average for eau de parfum.

I schemed and planned and finally managed to get my hands on a decant. I love this stuff. The drydown reminds me very much of Mariella Burani, which I also love, without the citrus angle.  (Funny how Mariella Burani seems something like No. 5, and something like Iris Poudre, all at the same time.)

I’d actually been planning a different throwdown for Iris Poudre for some time – versus Mariella Burani – but this comparison popped up out of nowhere when I was reading some older posts at Perfume Shrine. Elena calls her smell-alike reviews “Twin Peaks,” and she suggested that this fragrance I’d never heard of was a pretty good, if cheap, dupe of the wonderful Iris Poudre. I snapped up a small 1oz bottle online for less than $10.

When it arrived in the mail, I opened the box to find a stiff, translucent plastic package encasing one of the most adorable cheapo-bling bottles I’ve ever seen: it is shaped like a handbag. The bottle is glass, with a top made of plastic painted silver; it has a movable handle, cute as all get-out.

Ahem. We never buy for the bottle.

Ulric de Varens is a French company that produces fragrances for sale in what Americans would call “the drugstore market.” Downscale, you’d think, like Parfums de Coeur or Revlon? Pricewise, yes. But several of UdV’s scents were composed by Jean Claude Ellena and Pierre Bourdon. (Yes, I’m serious.) No perfumer is listed for UdV pour elle, which was released in 1999. Fragrantica lists notes of pear, rose, jasmine, lily, and white musk, which really gives no idea what the scent is like. I’d add aldehydes and tonka bean to the list.

Upon first spray of UdV, I can’t help laughing: it smells, unmistakably, of old-fashioned hair spray. The hair spray accord only lasts three or four minutes, and then I get classic soapy-powdery aldehydes overlaid with a light, synthetic pear note that also lasts just a few moments. From there, UdV is very much an aldehydic floral, a classic mixed-floral bouquet with a powdery sparkle. I can’t pick out the floral notes; “rose, jasmine, and lily,” you say? Whatever. It just comes across as just floral. It fades down to a skin scent, scarcely perceptible, after about an hour on me, even using the “sprayed wet” technique. At this point it is at what I’d call its prettiest stage: a soft musk, the powdery remains of the aldehydes, the smoothness of tonka bean, vanilla and woods. This stage lasts several hours on me, eventually fading into a very quiet vanilla-musk with a creamy-powdery texture very reminiscent of Dior New Look 1947.

It does smell somewhat like Iris Poudre, particularly in the aldehydic opening and the soft powdery-creamy drydown. There is an essential cheapness to Ulric de Varens pour Elle, a lack of natural ingredients that nevertheless avoids, to a large degree, the harshness of most drugstore-quality fragrances. The pear note is quite synthetic, and the woods, and probably most of the florals. However, the composition as a whole is very smooth and seamless, with a soft sueded texture that I find very enjoyable.  It also reminds me of New Look 1947, without the white florals – and yet I love Iris Poudre and don’t love New Look.  Couldn’t tell you why one and not the other.

Ulric de Varens is not comparable in quality to the Malle fragrance. And yet if you’re not flush enough with cash for a bottle of Iris Poudre, the UdV scent is at the very least a cheap, cheerful stopgap.

Other comparisons to Iris Poudre seem frequently to mention Ferre by Ferre, the black and gold “grenade” bottle, with the suggestion that the Ferre scent is easier to find and cheaper. Well, that’s not the case at the time of writing: Ferre is available on ebay if you are patient to sort through the Ferre fragrances for the one you want, but not much cheaper than the Malle. I have a mini bottle. It is not in good shape – the aldehydes have deteriorated, so that it smells like nail polish remover – so I have not worn it enough to write a proper review. When I have given it a thorough wearing, I’ll add Ferre by Ferre to the Fragrance Throwdown.

Image of wrestlers from Wikimedia Commons. Fragrance images from Fragrantica.

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