Phantom by Paco Rabanne (2021)

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Enjoying a fragrance like this is probably going to get me a couple of punches to the gut, but I’ve hated things popular to love and loved things popular to hate before, so I don’t really care. Let’s acknowledge that Phantom by Paco Rabanne (2021) screams all things tacky and gauche, being a bottle in the shape of a toy robot with a built-in connectivity to your phone via some NFC chip embedded in the sprayer. Furthermore, Paco Rabanne themselves conjure up a whole litany of hyperbolic talking points about why the stuff is so revolutionary and cutting-edge, right on down to why they chose each of its four perfumers, including Long Doc, Dominique Ropion, Juliette Karaguezoglou, and Anne Flipo. Even all that isn’t the biggest thing to mention about this fragrance before I get into what it actually smells like, as the very genesis of Phantom’s design is the thing collectors and hobbyists within the online fragrance community have feared for years: Perfume by artificial intelligence. Magazines and online blogs have for years talked about various machine learning techniques being deployed by different chemical suppliers like Givaudan, IFF, and Firmenich to assist master perfumers like Alberto Morillas in place of books and Human minds with the mundane location and dosage of materials to get the desired accords; but this is far worse because it leaves the bulk of the creative heavy-lifting to machine learning itself, something we knew was coming but hoped wouldn’t. The so-called “Augmented Creativity” software at IFF was pumped full of marketing data and then pooped out a lump that all 4 perfumers had to shape, and that is Phantom. Buckle your seat belts kids, this ride gets rough.

Now how does it smell? Well, Phantom smells good, as you might expect. It combines really unorthodox notes in ways only a machine could fathom to do, so the opening is sweet creamy lemon and apple, fruity in ways that remind me of ice cream or a smoothie from Jamba. The brand boasts “Lavender 3.0” as three different lavandin sources (so not true lavender) in each tier of the note pyramid, although the lavender note is exceedingly sharp and cold like Prada Luna Rossa Carbon (2017) after the dessert top notes fade. Vanilla warms the composition but then a sharp metallic note coming from an unsuspecting source of styrallyl acetate enters the picture. There isn’t anything special about this particular acetate other than it powered the green and metallic facets of classics like Carven’s Ma Griffe (1946) or Miss Dior (1947), so it showing up here is like stuffing galbanum into a Paco Rabanne Invictus (2013) flanker. Add in some vetiver smoke and akigalawood to the mix, then suddenly the dry down isn’t much seeming like the crazy frozen confectionery top. The sweetness drops off almost completely midway, which really makes me think the AI was shooting for the 15 to 50 age window, replacing the unconventional but still youthful compliment-getting opening salvo with a green woody and aromatic finish that could see someone slip out of his Addidas track suit and into an Armani business suit instead. Sclarene from clary sage like in H24 by Hermès (2021) is the abused aromchemical of the year found in the base alongside more lavandin (because Lavender 3.0 y’all), more vetiver, and traces of the citrus from the opening, oddly more evident likely due to the acetates extending them. Wear time is forever, and because this stuff was made by a machine without context in mind, I can’t offer any on how to use it.

Now that we know what we are dealing with, a fully-realized AI perfume shaped by 4 perfumers into something we can wear, any and all criticism about artistic merit falls moot because there simply is none. This fragrance is one that a machine said “this is what you want” when you tell it you need perfume to boost sexiness, confidence, and energy (based on market copy) plus make the wearer feel “happy”. Take that then fine-tune out the things which the algorithm gets wrong, and claim it was at least touched by Human hands. We joke about Dior Sauvage (2015) being this because of how cold and unfeeling it is, how focused on performance and mass-appeal it was, but it is still primarily from the imagination of a Human perfumer; this fragrance is not, and is the direct result of when a desire to optimize a product so far trumps everything that even Human intuition is cut from the creation process. I honestly don’t know how I feel about Phantom. On one hand, this is a bizarre and fascinating journey that I can’t help but admire; but on the other hand, this kind of path could lead us to something like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which is pretty scary. The fragrance itself is a total unfeeling jumbled mess in ways that Dior Sauvage never could be in spite of the jokes, yet somehow still smells pleasant. Unlike Paco Rabanne 1 Million (2008), no cynicism finds its way into the composition because “Augmented Creativity” is incapable of that, but no other emotion does either. I like Phantom in spite of the tacky, gimmicky packaging and ad copy, but part of me doesn’t want to like it because the emotional responses it triggers are uncomfortable. The uncanny valley in fragrance has been reached. Thumbs up

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