We just moved into a new house and found two stashes of soaps in a cardboard box that contained the random collection of things typical of carefully planned moves: unbreakable objects individually wrapped, no doubt to give coat hangers and bathroom mats an experience of cosseted travel rare in their austere lives. Now the bathrooms contain one each of Irish Spring and Mitsouko. The former was bought in bulk for me by TS’s mother when I expressed undying love for it during a visit. The second was found on ebay: 20 or so soaps, which we’ve being going through deliberately, since they could well be the last on earth.
These two very different marvels serve as a reminder that perfumery, like all true adventure, is mostly about skill and fitness for purpose, and only secondarily about expense and pedigree. Irish Spring is one of those abstract accords that you somehow know is dirt cheap, yet perfect, like Coca Cola and Old Spice. Italian has a word for this: indovinato, “guessed”. A colleague once told me that a fragrance which was for a long time the most popular in Africa, called Bint el Sudan, had been cobbled together overnight in a Khartoum hotel room by a Bush Boake Allen salesman with no previous perfumery experience (though other versions of the story exist). I once had a bottle and it smelled like the Platonic essence of perfume, just the kind Plato would have disapproved of.
The weird thing about Irish Spring is that the soap smells powerfully, but leaves very little fragrance on the hands and does not radiate much in the bathroom. Mitsouko is another matter: you walk in the house and oakmoss greets you from two rooms away. You can smell it on your hands for hours. Oakmoss was to fragrance what constitutions are to legal systems: the bedrock you don’t mess with unless there are riots in the streets or both chambers are in uproar. Yet some idiot dermatologists, leveraged by prosaic politicians, managed to have it restricted. Mitsouko soap is wonderful in a completely different way from Irish Spring: it demonstrates that great beauty is independent of pixel count, and stays grand even when thumbnail-small. I wonder what the handsome upstart and the grande dame say to each other in the soap bowl.