We are publishing this text/review, written by Tamas Turza, unedited. The original was posted on Facebook on May, 13th 2022.
INTRO TO: Perfume by D.L. Roelen
Sex & Drugs & Open Minds
+ WARNING: this article will meander for a while before getting to the actual perfumes. Also, I talk a lot about recreational drug use in it, so let the reader beware. +
Growing up in a post-communist Eastern European country in the 1990s we were constantly fascinated by the concept of freedom and where you can find it. Not in any haughty existential or philosophical sense, and not with any rebellious desire to break free from something in particular – we just accepted it as indisputable fact that there were places in the world where people were endowed with more liberties than elsewhere. What had it meant exactly? I don’t think any of us really knew.
At first, of course, it was always America; imprinted on our young and impressionable minds and imagination by the TV-shows, pop songs, movies and magazines suddenly flooding our country that just broke free from Eastern tyranny, hungry for the West. The “Land of Dreams”, where people were free to be who or what they wanted to be… Little did we know then that conservative, bigoted, white and protestant America’s dream of freedom was a suffocating, hypocritical and cruel dogma that aimed to mercilessly eradicate anyone who did not fit its templates.
Later, as we grew older, our scope of the world expanded and our desire for certain freedoms expanded with it. We learned about places like Holland, the UK, Canada or France, where people were free to do… well, if not exactly whatever they wanted to do, but definitely a whole lot more than what our hopeful but still young and fragile culture allowed us at the time, taking stumbling baby steps towards a new and liberating understanding of personal freedom and identity.
For all of us that did not travel much, it took the transferring of our lives to the Internet through the advent of social media - and quite some time spent exploring - to learn about the places where you could find the one true freedom: the freedom that allows you to be what you were born to be.
Of course, this discovery could not have happened without one of the greatest catalysts of change: music. Between the early 2000s and the late 2010s, I was working as a program manager with some of the leading underground clubs in Budapest. We lived and breathed electronic dance music, nightlife, weekends and festivals that never seemed to end, along with much of the excess that came with that lifestyle. It felt like we had finally found true freedom.
And then sometime in the early 2010s, Berlin’s underground electronic music culture – rooted robustly in the German capital’s rich social and artistic soil since the very beginnings of the techno movement – suddenly exploded, sending a shockwave all around the world; a transmission that started rapidly rewiring our receptive and curious minds, carrying with it the DNA of the kind of freedom that had always been Berlin’s own; the kind that no other culture has managed to truly replicate ever since, the kind that we started reaching for from that moment on.
Berlin has long been the city of excess, with a history of extreme highs and extreme lows. During the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic, the metropolis did not only boast a cultural renaissance of science, humanities and arts unparalleled in the World; it was also a torchbearer to the progress of human rights and modern identity politics as well, spearheading the emancipation of women and the liberation of queer people (the world’s first gay magazine was published in Berlin as early as 1896, and by the 1920s the city was hailed as the gay capital of Europe), right before World War Two drowned it all in blood and darkness.
After the war – as the allies controlling the former German capital turned into bitter enemies – came a cold, jarring division that lasted for almost thirty years with the building of the Berlin Wall. And when the wall came down in 1989, a new kind of youth rose on its ruins; unified from the Eastern and Western parts of the city, with a new understanding of how important love, freedom and community is, and with an ironclad resolve never to let anything stand between them again. This brought about an ethos of sharing and absolute acceptance: nothing was allowed to divide the community in any way, be it religious beliefs, identity or sexual orientation, as enjoying the same music together and embracing each other’s differences became the new standard. Danielle De Picciotto once recalled the ‘80s scene as full of feminine, bisexual men as well as women who overthrew gender stereotypes by dressing masculine and tough, with both sides wholeheartedly supporting the break-up of the previous norms.
But the advent of techno at the end of the decade changed this as well: an even more encompassing equality began to spread from the dance floors of squats and bunkers, where principles of the rave did not only override race, religion, identity and other convictions, but now also fashion. Clothing was no longer worn to signal gender identities; their uniformized practicality and comfort gained preference over looks, to allow for longer and more carefree dancing.
Recreational drugs also followed suit: heroin and speed, the two popular chemical choices of the ‘80s (one to send you on a spiral deep inside yourself, the other to enhance you enough to be able to leave yourself behind) got replaced by more extroverted drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine, which made people socialize, connect and spend time together, prioritizing social connections over just coming together for sex.
Today, Berlin is one of the most important cities for electronic music and youth culture worldwide, and it faces its own two-sided reality. On the one hand it has kept its experimental, self-made and innovative character; its underground youth liberates itself culturally and sexually, and sets itself new values as they leave consumerism behind and eschew global trends, having become a bona fide modern counterculture. On the other hand, there are plenty of those who try wringing this spirit into a product to capitalize on: armies of tourists arrive in steady influx daily to taste the city’s famous flavors; new clubs open monthly; superstar DJs and beginners with no names alike flock to the metropolis for fame, and the German government dotes hundreds of thousands on preserving the culture as national heritage.
This mighty underground ethos has inspired perfumers several times before: Stefanie Mayr and Daniel Plettenberg masterfully immortalized Germany’s disenfranchised, outcast youth and the world of squats in their conceptual piece Dreckig Bleiben, then went on to create [anti anti], an olfactory manifesto of said youth’s positive political stance. Elternhaus’ ambitious UNIFAITH project - standing for absolute religious tolerance and acceptance – could not have been born anywhere else but in Berlin, while Folie A Plusieurs’ Black and J.F. Schwarzlose’s Rausch both paid brilliant homage to the capital’s legendary dance music rituals. Even the city’s famed fetish scene received a nod through the magnetic Leder 6 (also by J.F. Schwarzlose).
However, even though I have always respected these inspired efforts, I never felt that any perfumer had ever managed to faithfully capture Berlin’s zeitgeist and cutting-edge value sets with true relevance until my fellow collector-friend Scarlett introduced me to the work of David Lucas Roelen.
Mind you, not one creation in the brilliant young advertising-professional-turned-perfumer’s collection is explicitly about the German capital, but the city and the culture’s influence on the scents and the concepts behind them is glaring. When I first dived into their world, I suddenly felt like I found myself home again; that here was a perfumer who did not only understand our generation with visceral, fierce empathy, but also the specific subculture where I belonged most of my life. It felt like I was back in the clubs, free and uninhibited again, surrounded by similarly open-minded people - and that the perfumer responsible was not a distant chronicler of events, but somebody who at some point may have danced in the same crowd as I did, and may have come to the same afterparty that I ended up at, and that maybe sometime, somewhere we even shared a conversation and a cigarette. It felt personal in a way like no perfume ever had before.
So here they are: six fragrances built on a contemporary value set to challenge toxic stereotypes in our society, to empower transformation and to enable a more radical self. Tools to help you embrace different identities and to give you confidence to face and express who you are. Freedom through sincerity and honesty - the only true kind.
Just like the sticker on the parcel says: “OPEN YOURSELF FIRST”. It is aptly laminated with silver, so that the message turns into a mirror – an interesting start. Next to a bunch of plain white tester strips with the invitation “Leave Your Mark On Me”, the vials and the bottles are sealed up in smoky-gray anti-static Ziploc bags with dried flowers scattered between them – these tiny, minimalist DIY details are fresh and exciting, and they radiate the kind of cohesion that always appears when a project is sincere and well thought-out. And if anything, these perfumes seem to have all the faith and backing of their creator: the phone number printed on every bottle is Roelen’s personal one. This invitation to connect, to share and to communicate is a small and humble gesture, yet it manages to feel important and authentic in our age of overinflated, phony and hollow advertising. One thing is certain: the message that these perfumes are best appreciated with an open mind is no empty talk. Now let’s dive in!
The Door (Gabriel Gabor, 2020)
I find it quite poetic that most people get acquainted with the collection through this perfume, as if it was a door of some sorts to D.L. Roelen’s world itself. Its avant-garde notes of smoke, industrial glue, latex, burnt match and skin are enough to make people curious, and the perfume’s origin story adds even more to the mystique: hearsay (and the old marketing copy that has been changed and neutered a while ago for some strange reason) has it that the titular Door is that of Berghain; the world’s most in/famous underground dance club where parties go on for days on end, where it’s forbidden to take photos (so nobody who hasn’t been really knows what it looks like inside), where people line up for hours to see if they will be admitted at all, and where the staff is so dedicated to preserve the unique atmosphere that they – seemingly arbitrarily – can turn away anyone that they deem a bad fit for the crowd inside (such as billionaire Elon Musk just the other week).
But Berghain’s strict and outwardly unfathomable door policy does more than just generate myths around the club: it protects and shelters a tight-knit, peaceful community of regulars with special tastes of uninhibited self-expression through dancing, liberated sexuality, drugs, fashion, and art. For an outsider, the explosive “anything goes” vibe at such events may seem shocking, but the absolutely judgement-free environment and the feeling of acceptance, love and community is an experience you just can’t find anywhere else.
To that point, The Door’s strange, industrial notes actually stand for animalic, sweaty skin; latex and rubber accessories, the smoke of palo santo (chips of this wood are frequently burned as smoldering incense to scent the air at parties), and even the sharp, chemical whiff of amyl nitrite poppers – the drug that launches your brain into the stars while flushing your system with warmth and rendering you weightless. It all amounts to a very pleasant, not unwearable, slightly smoky/tarry rubber scent on a sweet, musky vanillic base. If you have ever been to a shoe store with lots of faux leather and even more freshly pressed rubber soles, this is the scent – something from the Comme Des Garcons handbook, but slightly more daring and avant-garde while just as pleasant to wear.
Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the legendary Berlin club Tresor once said that techno parties are a door for people to leave the real world and escape to a different reality for a while. I wholeheartedly believe this to be true, and that The Door is an excellent, genuinely inspired perfume for those glorious escapes.
Daddy (Jorge Lee, 2020)
Whether they are of the male or the femme persuasion, a daddy in LGBT parlance is a partner who’s powerful and assertive, yet still caring instead of dominating in a relationship. Daddies may be tough at times, but they are loving and protective. To capture this particular energy, Roelen and master perfumer Jorge Lee went with a postmodern, reconstructed fougère structure, and ended up with a particularly contemporary take on the venerable genre. What remains traditional in Daddy is a cool and minty lavender, some herbal-green sage, a classically baritone oakmoss and an elegant, clean patchouli. Where it diverges, however, is where it gets interesting.
Firstly, the fougère core is floated on a big, fat, vanillic ambergris base, which immediately transforms the traditionally masculine lavender/oakmoss/sage combo into something entirely genderfluid and bordering on unrecognizable for what it is at first sniff. I’m at odds with the ambergris used here: it is clearly not the pungent, headache-inducing synthetic variety we know from basically everywhere, yet it smells way too clean and not animalic enough to come off as natural.
2020 Limited Edition campaign
And I will say this here, but it applies to all the perfumes of the line: the DNA woven through these creations has a very clean, glossy and synthetic feel to it. Not synthetic as in cheap, but rather the opposite; as if all of these notes – even the animalic ones - were painstakingly developed to smell expensive, classy, but in a purposely futuristic, shiny and android-like way. I don’t know if this was intentional or just a characteristic of the aromachemicals used; or if it is a base that they all share, but it gives the whole collection a unique touch that is just as easy to love as it is instantly recognizable.
But back to the juice: a handful of tastefully selected but unusual notes (mandarin, fennel and a quite prominent chamomile) add a few more genuinely memorable facets. A genderfluid fougère for a new age, Daddy has the uncanny air of a traditional, assertive masculine that’s been mutated with a ‘90s fragrance aesthetic: clean, bright, streamlined, totally unisex, eminently wearable and damn good for almost any time and any occasion.
Crystal Haze (Jorge Lee, 2020)
Hands down the most delightful and original concept and the apparent bestseller of the line, Crystal Haze is inspired by the excitement of trying something new and life-changing when you are young – like taking MDMA / ecstasy for the first time in your life, for example.
Okay, for this interpretation you have to read between the lines a bit deeper even in the old marketing copy (for understandable reasons), but for me it was so glaringly obvious that for the remainder of the review I will take my chances and run with it.
I’d say it is fairly difficult to render the effects of a drug into a scent, but Roelen and Lee managed to pull it off here with a deceptively simple yet amusingly intelligent artistic choice.
First of all, they navigated away from the obvious – and let’s admit, somewhat intense and not necessarily appealing – aspects of the drug in full force, and emphasized instead the exhilaration and the clean, childlike innocence of when the effects start kicking in. For this, they created the illusion of wearing a crispy clean, new cotton shirt (notes of cotton flower, jeans and linen) fresh from the laundry (notes of beautifully airy, soapy, breezy laundry musks), which can be a brilliantly inventive and competent analogy for the unmistakable feeling when the world begins to melt into a softer, fluffier and infinitely cozier place; when the sense of touch heightens, and when waves of empathy wash over you and all you want is to cuddle up to the world.
Secondly, they chose a fantastic, powdered orange note with a dash of creamy tuberose to stand for the feeling of youthful energy, curiosity and excitement, and it works incredibly well. Imagine something between orange cream soda, or the smell of orange PEZ candies (which brings about the allusion to other colourful, pressed pills), or some orange-flavored drink crystal… It is creamy, bright, cheerful, and as youthful and innocent as it gets. And to top it off, there is also note listed as “bitter crystal musks”, which are not bitter as such - but they do add an ever-so-slight hint of plastery, medicinal quality too, which kinda speaks for itself if you know how to interpret it.
Wear it as a nostalgic reminder of high-energy / high-empathy nights, or just as a very poetic and fun symbol of youthful excitement, innocence and curiosity; either way you will find Crystal Haze difficult not to love.
Flower Boy (Jorge Lee, 2020)
Flower Boy is exactly what the name suggests: a conceptual gender-bender that aims to challenge stereotypical men’s fragrances and to present a new type of masculinity; one that embraces its gentle and sensitive side while remaining strong and manly at the same time. Instead of muddling together feminine and masculine notes to some kind of “unisex” effect, Roelen and Lee chose to build two distinct halves and then made them talk to each other, achieving a strangely natural and lyrical unity born from the contrast.
The top here is a strong but gentle, masculine floral: a surprisingly delicate rose, marigolds, geranium, gardenia, with the baritone of hinoki wood for backbone. It is unabashedly sensual and even fragile, without aiming for even a bit of unnecessary manliness; a reminder that sometimes embracing your vulnerabilities is the only thing that can grow you into a stronger and more assertive person.
To contrast this, the base consists of an airy but solid sandalwood, some clean, handsome patchouli, tobacco, and a hint of really good birch tar. It brings to mind a clean, but clearly used garage with hints of engine oil, rubber and a bit of smoke, and manages to add genuine masculinity without missing a beat in step with the gentle florals up top.
Just unusual enough and highly wearable, Flower Boy is indeed “a beautiful bouquet in a smoky garage”, and a piece of contemporary poetry.
Broken Bouquet (Dario Siegel, 2020)
A conceptual counterpart to Flower Boy, Broken Bouquet is an unconventional feminine, a modern floral with substance, depth, strength and confidence to go against the pretty but ultimately empty accessories that most female perfumes have become. It is also melancholic and damaged in a very real, adult way – which also lends it strength enough to be easily pulled off by dudes as well, in typical Roelen fashion.
Something is indeed broken in this bouquet. Having also been inspired by the bittersweet beauty of a break-up that teaches us to embrace change and learn to let go, it starts off sharp, astringent, and medicinal. Crushed green stems, an overripe rose, a voluptuous jasmine, some powdery violets emerge from the chemical opening, then slowly undergo an unexpected transformation: tonka bean, spices and a somewhat charred caramel appear in the base and blend together into a sweet-bitter, burnt gourmand drydown – as the pain of goodbyes eventually subsides and lessons learned sweeten the sadness.
Broken Bouquet is not the easiest fragrance in the lineup, but if you understand its message, it might easily become your favourite (like it became mine); a gorgeously shattered, unusual, heavy floral gourmand.
Ambivalence (Gabriel Gabor, 2020)
You are sitting on the rocks scattered by the sea in a small cove on the Ibizan seaside. Five of your best friends are sitting around you, and you are watching the waves as the sunset paints the rugged, barren coastline in impossible hues of reds, oranges and yellows. This cove is a secret place known only to the locals, so it’s peaceful and quiet here – only occasionally do you hear the low booms of bass from an open-air club far away, and the sounds of people having fun in the distance. The warm evening breeze stirs up the scent of sun-dried hay and the aromatic, wild Mediterranean herbs that grow between the rocks.
You were out dancing together at Space the previous night, but you haven’t decided to return home yet, and the salt water of the skinny dipping earlier in the day had not managed to entirely wash away the slightly prickly smell of your sweat. A joint is making the rounds, mellowing all of you out; the weed is excellent, and as you inhale the resinous, fresh, citrusy smoke, you know you will welcome a good night’s sleep. You close your eyes and zone out, listening to the waves and the quiet conversation of your friends. It is the perfect moment; life is beautiful, and all of a sudden you realize you will never be this young again – and the thought resonates with a tiny, bittersweet ache in your heart.
This is all you need to understand about Ambivalence.
This is the house of D.L. Roelen in a nutshell. Six fragrances that are absolutely unisex, quite unique, easy to wear (even the two compositions hailed as risqué and animalic – Ambivalence and The Door - are clean and pleasant) and full of depth – not only in their concepts and messages, but also in their complex, inventive structures and exciting progressions.
What makes them unmissable is Roelen’s vision and his determination to champion our contemporary generation’s positive values, but most of all his natural talent as an art director: it shines through the concepts, the unexpected but consistently evocative execution, the design, and most of all, the fact that he managed to convey these personal stories to the excellent perfumers he had enlisted in a way that nothing got lost in translation.
If you are familiar with underground nightlife, if you identify with the LGBTQ community, or if you just think of yourself as an open-minded person of modern values, check these perfumes out and I promise that you will find each one highly relevant. But do check them out in any other case as well, as they are solid examples of youthful, progressive contemporary perfumery.
Soundtracks to these frags:
Let’s Misbhv by Radio Slave & DJ Hell
Radio Hell (MISBHV, 2022)
Pick Up by DJ Koze
Knock Knock (Pampa Records, 2018)