Let’s say you wish to experience a ruinous walk at dawn, taking a route through a block choked with tropical flowers, where the Faubourg Marigny leads to Esplanade Avenue right before the liquor and filth-infused French Quarter? Perhaps a meditative stroll through the temples and deities of Ubud, Bali, breathing in clouds of incense? Welcome to the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (BPAL), where murky pasts, florid presents, and myriad other dimensions are conjured. Founded in 2002 by Elizabeth and Ted Barrial and Brian Constantine, BPAL has endless scents for any journey—for every mood, fairy tale, or horror story.
Many of us have a bijou nostalgia for fragrance. I think back to my first bottle of eau de toilette, at age six: a cheap bottle of orange flower perfume bought at a souvenir shop in Fort Lauderdale. Then there were the Love’s Baby Soft mornings and, in later adolescence, eaux de parfums from a designer lab, with overpowering floral notes and often very little staying power. (Perhaps my skin was rejecting them.) Anaïs Anaïs before ballet class, which mixed so well with the rosin on my toe shoes. Clouds of Poison when I was a freshman in college, walking through Washington Square Park on brisk evenings to see punk rock shows in the basement of the student center.
But then I found BPAL. I first encountered its products via my early-aughts social media obsession, LiveJournal. The Lab had a passionate community of fans, eager to engage in recondite discussion about every note they encountered in its intriguing scents. It was as if they were analyzing a symphony. Intrigued (I had found my people), I placed my first order, Blood Kiss, with cherry notes that are downright pornographic, and Jazz Funeral, which contains boozy notes over almost rotting tropical flowers. Immediately I followed up with their seasonal Halloween offerings, landing on Samhain, which to this day is undeniably my signature scent. Perhaps that’s the enchantment of BPAL: a single fragrance brings out something different in everyone who rubs the oil onto their pulse points. You become anything you may have always secretly wanted to be: extravagant, promiscuous, louche, vulpine, feline …
Enter Felis silvestris catus, a.k.a. the domestic cat. House panther. Living room lion. Soul mate for yours truly. Inspired by cats in classic paintings—which never seem to include as many cats as we’d like, BPAL believes, and who else could change that but them?—their portfolio of fourteen different feline-themed scents is transcendental. Standouts include the cozy yet playful Cat on the Table, something you want to cuddle up with and devour (on a plush velvet chaise, of course)—wear it and get the attention that you demand—and the luxurious Cat on a Cushion Licking Its Paw, whose hazelnut notes are tempered by a red patchouli that makes it deeper, darker, something that makes you hesitate before trusting. The Cat Seen From Behind is sultry and graceful. Tonka bean and rice milk gives it a creaminess that mellows the sandalwood and patchouli. While by night she casts a spell, By Day She Made Herself Into a Cat, one that lingers among the herb- and incense-stocked shelves of an esoteric bookshop. And Floral Still Life With Cat holds some surprises. Never trust the initial notes of a BPAL fragrance. Like a fine wine, let it breathe. If your skin at first smells as if you have been rolling around in rose petals, just wait a bit longer, and it becomes deeper and dreamier.
Through the alchemy of Black Phoenix’s lab, I have become one with my favorite creature. If I were to live each of its nine lives, they would be fully satiated, full of risks fulfilled. Because curiosity doesn’t ever have to kill the cat.