There are billions of rose perfumes in the world. Billions, you ask? Well, maybe not…but it’s getting there. With the meteoric rise of oud in the fragrance world, rose has turned from a common note to a damn near inescapable one. So why is it worthwhile to talk about something like Frederic Malle’s Portrait of a Lady, a rose-dominant goliath of a perfume, in 2023? The answer is that this fragrance is a shining example of a progenitor that continues to outshine imitators in its wake.
Let’s get it out of the way early: I’m biased toward this fragrance. For years, my top three perfumes of all time have been Amouage’s Fate Woman, Zoologist’s Nightingale, and Portrait of a Lady. Together, they form something of a trinity: Fate’s nuanced mysticism, Nightingale’s restrained elegance, and Portrait’s bold sensuality allow me to wear something I love in almost any situation. But if I had to choose a true anchor – a desert island fragrance that I could spend my entire life wearing – Portrait easily comes out on top. It certainly has its limitations, sure. Portrait is never going to make you feel cute or casual. However, it’s also likely to impress nearly everyone you meet in nearly any situation, and that itself is hard for most perfumes to accomplish.
Portrait of a Lady notes
Top Note: Rose
Middle Notes: Blackcurrant, Raspberry, Clove
Base Notes: Patchouli, Sandalwood, Frankincense
Most Frederic Malle creations bear an extreme polish that can actually hamper the intentions of the fragrances. There is a clean precision to works like L’Eau d’Hiver, French Lover, and even Musc Ravageur that make their compositions feel more scientific than emotional. The rough edges supplied in compositions by houses like Zoologist and Olympic Orchids are essential to making their perfumes feel personal. Despite providing the names of their perfumers on the bottles – an attribute which in my mind is not only preferable but ideal in the perfume industry – Malle creations can feel like statues beyond the touch of their creators. Portrait of a Lady isn’t so much an exception as it is a perfect fit for these restrictions.
The problem with so many rose-oud fragrances is that they are playing to an audience that wants as much pure oud stankiness as possible. This maximalist approach can work, and I still believe Malle’s The Night is a shining example of guns-blazing perfumery. But more often than not, something gets lost in all the prancing and preening. Portrait of a Lady works because it hones in on the best aspects of its notes – the rich depth of the rose, the earthier aspects of its fruit notes, and the herbal, smoky edge of patchouli – without giving any one note too much attention.
This balance is apparent through every stage of the fragrance. Portrait of a Lady opens in a brash, celebratory all-cylinders-firing sort of way. Its floral notes are aggressively femme while its spicy, herbal notes are dark and masc. Thankfully, there are no screaming alcohol notes here – it’s just a symphony of rich organic textures. As the fragrance dries down, the nuances and softness of each note shine even more. Within two hours, Portrait of a Lady transforms from a statement piece into a comfort fragrance. It’s not a matter of dulled edge so much as an example of attention to detail. As the sharpness of the florals and woods fade, the composition melts into a pool of complementary notes that play off each other without screaming for attention. You’re never going to mistake Portrait of a Lady for another fragrance, but you’re never going to be jump-scared by it either.
Even if you’re disillusioned by Frederic Malle’s brand or sick of rose fragrances, Portrait of a Lady is absolutely worth the venture. Make no mistake – you’re certainly paying a premium for the ingredients and aesthetic that the brand offers. Sometimes, that trade is worth making. It certainly is here. Even if you come away disappointed, you’re more than likely able to cross an entire genre off the list.
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