Illamasqua Freak ~ fragrance review

Illamasqua Freak advert

Illamasqua, a London-based cosmetics brand founded in 2008, has adopted the phrase "Make-up for your alter ego" as its slogan; as the Illamasqua website explains, "Illamasqua is for the bolder person hiding inside all of us. It is an act and an attitude. A symbol of tolerance. A celebration of idiosyncrasies." Illamasqua's cosmetics are boldly colored and densely formulated, almost like theatrical makeup for everyday use, and they have humorously subversive names. I was originally curious about the line because it drew on visual-cultural influences like 1920s Berlin, not to mention the fact that one of its art directors is David Vanian, former lead singer of The Damned.

Now, three years later, we are presented with Freak, Illamasqua's first fragrance. It is "a concoction of dangerously unconventional flowers brought together to celebrate the night," with a composition of black davana, opium flower, belladonna, poison hemlock, datura, queen of the night blossom, frankincense, oud, and myrrh. (The description on the Illamsaqua website also mentions a "burnt orange bloom base.") I originally read this list of notes with great interest and then I enjoyed watching the Freak video (even if the voiceover reminded me somewhat of the Princess Andromeda's recitation of the suitors' riddle in the original Clash of the Titans).

So, how does Freak smell? Disclosure: I have never smelled an actual opium flower (poppy) or queen of the night (night-blooming cereus), I've only read that davana has a fruity, rum-like scent, and I'm familiar with hemlock primarily from Ormonde Jayne Ormonde Woman, so I can't assess the accuracy of these notes in Freak. On me, this composition opens with a chilly bite: its introduction is a metallic-ozonic accord with an almost minty edge. This phase lasts for about ten minutes, after which it dissolves into a sheer, nondescript white floral heart with a fruity accent that might be the davana, but reads more as "purple berry" to my nose and brain. There's a faint wisp of smoke (the oud and incense?) and another light floral note that reminds me of violet, but the predominant note in the fragrance's developing heart and its base is a sharp synthetic musk. I'm wondering whether I might be anosmic to some aspect of Freak, because there almost seem to be gaps in the composition. The musk gradually turns quieter and more ragged, with a very faint "dirty" edge, like the cleaned-up patchouli that appears in so many commercial fragrances these days. Freak could easily be a "shared" fragrance: its medicinal-musk element is more masculine, and its fruit and florals are more traditionally feminine, but the overall result is a little too timid to shock in either direction.

I'm having much the same reaction to Freak that I had to the D&G Fragrance Anthology, which was an interesting concept but turned out to be much "exclusive" ado about nothing. Freak is about as freaky as Jo Malone Wild Bluebell is wild. It's not a terrible fragrance, just somewhat vague and thin and formulaic, other than that intriguing cold-air top note. (Maybe most of the budget went towards its fantastic bottle design?) "Daringly provocative" it is not, unless your previous fragrance diet has consisted strictly of candy-vanilla fragrances from a lower-end department store. 

As you can tell, I can't help but feel disappointed in Freak. This is partly because it just doesn't do what it says it will do, and partly for more personal reasons. I remember my own alternative-culture days, in which my friends and I would spend hours dressing and applying makeup before we went out to see Peter Murphy or The Jesus & Mary Chain in concert. In those do-it-yourself, pre-internet days, we bought clothes at thrift stores and dyed them black, ordered Doc Martens from a London mail-order site advertised in the back of a music magazine, hoarded the Wet 'n' Wild black nail polish that we'd bought during the Halloween season, and performed our toilettes while listening to the "mix" cassettes that we had painstakingly assembled from vinyl records and late-night radio broadcasts. There certainly weren't any "alter ego" fragrances being marketed to us.

Illamasqua Freak perfume bottle

Maybe I'm just getting old and nostalgic, feeling (perhaps erroneously) that things are more precious when they're difficult to obtain or create. Maybe I should be happy for today's young goths and club kids and other alternative groups, who have so many consumer choices laid out before them. However, when there is such a busy marketplace competing to cater to their every need and desire, shouldn't the offerings be more compelling, more unusual? I just don't feel that Freak lives up to its promise. Instead, I'm guessing, would-be freaks will be happier with perfume oils ordered from the long-standing favorite Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab or any number of Etsy sellers who cater to darker or more theatrical tastes (Midnight Gypsy Alchemy and Wiggle Perfume, to name just two).  At the higher end of the price spectrum, I'd recommend fragrances like Serge Lutens Datura Noir (for a more interesting take on datura) and Bois de Violette, Siberian Snow from DS & Durga, or nearly anything from Comme des Garçons.

Now that I've thoroughly depressed myself, I'll end this review here. You'll be able to find me in my room, with the lights off. To cheer me up, let me know: have you tried any truly dark, mysterious, freak-y fragrances lately?

Illamasqua Freak is available as 75 ml Eau de Parfum ($90) through the Illamasqua or Sephora websites (but not in Sephora stores, which makes it difficult for Illamasqua fans to sample before purchasing). In the UK, it can be found at Selfridges.

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41 Comments

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  1. Ikat says:

    Just got it. The bottle is gorgeous and far more freaky than the juice.

    My comparison is SL Datura Noir, which, although sweet, seems more daring. I could wear Freak to an afternoon tea or a basketball game and someone will ask me what that lovely “cozy” scent is.

    Just adore the bottle. Great design. But then, I’m a bottle tart.

    • Jessica says:

      The bottle really is wonderful… and so are all the accompanying visuals! sigh. I guess that’s part of the reason I expected something *more* from the actual fragrance.

  2. FragrantWitch says:

    Oh no! I am so disappointed! My inner Goth is morose. I wanted something subculture, worthy of my younger, purple velvet and black nail-polish, Doc Marten and patchouli-jasmine oil wearing, clove cigarette and Marlboro smoking self! Look forward to reading all the rec’s that come in as I haven’t smelled anything freaky lately….though a FB of Shalimar Parfum Initial was just given to me. Hurrah! As a die- hard fan of the original I am skeptical but it smells okay so far probably not love but, hey, it was actually FREE!

    • Jessica says:

      Fragrantwitch, let us sit in the dark together and listen to some early Siouxsie & the Banshees albums.

      Another recommendation: Lolita Lempicka Minuit Noir, in the fancy limited edition bottle:
      http://www.nstperfume.com/2011/09/08/bunch-o-limited-edition-collector-bottles-2011-part-13/

      • FragrantWitch says:

        I am there! Let me sharpen my eyeliner…

        • GalileosDaughter says:

          Or warm up the eyeliner with a lighter! Ah, the smell of burning those cheap WnW eyeliners!

          • Jessica says:

            Hah! Those WnW liners weren’t terribly good, but at least they were cheap (99 cents!). Freak, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a $20 eyeliner that doesn’t pack much pigment and slips out of place.

  3. Marjorie Rose says:

    I’m sorry to hear that this scent is so not freaky! It doesn’t even sound like the perfume-equivalent of Hot Topic?

    I can’t think of any scent I own having an especially “dark” feel to it. . .maybe since I don’t usually like incense fragrances? If I were to create one, I would want it to have incense, maybe something like the earthiness of Black March, and maybe a hint of lilies. To be REALLY dark, it would need a touch of dust and formaldehyde.

    • Jessica says:

      I think CH I Hate Perfume would be a good source for dark/earthy notes!

      You know. I wouldn’t mind a fun cheap-thrill Goth fragrance available at Hot Topic (maybe there *is* one, for all I know…) but this fragrance is not exactly cheap, and not widely available, either. If it’s aimed at a youth market, it’s not going to find them…

  4. Meg says:

    Is there actually an adorable little silver snail on the bottle? Oh my, that will be a problem.

    I’m with Marjorie, my collection is (now) noticably devoid of “dark”/”freaky” frags, maybe because I don’t really get incense notes. I have Demeter’s Dirt, but that isn’t really dark so much as straight up dirty, and Back to Black might fit the bill except it seems too rich and opulent, and generally enjoying life too much to be a true creature of the night.

    • Jessica says:

      Well, I’ve been working from a sample and haven’t seen the bottle yet, since it’s not available in stores… but yes, that is a wee silver snail! A must for bottle-collectors, I’d say. ;)

  5. Merlin says:

    It doesn’t seem possible to use terms like ‘alternative’ and ‘goth’ without the question of authenticity immediately raising its earnest head! With so much of the scene being about costume, make-up and posturing I don’t think it could be otherwise.

    Though I do have some gothish pretensions I find most ‘dark’ perfumes to just be unpleasant – most particularly Magie Noir makes me queasy. The exception may be Tauer’s Incense Rose which makes me think of a deteriorating marble angel like the cover of a CD devoted to Requiems…

    • Jessica says:

      Well, for me, it’s not so much even a question of authenticity (at this late date, almost 2012!) as it of quality. For this price, with this limited, niche-like distribution, the fragrance should just be *better.* Then again, there are no guarantees about niche quality anymore, either…

      • Merlin says:

        I guess I’m just reflecting on my own reaction to the new ‘goths’, and to my old-pixie-boot-sister-of-mercy adolescence! Also on commercialism which was supposed to be a bit of an anathema to most counter-culture groups.

        I’m sure your analysis of the actual juice was spot-on, as usual:) as well as your observation on the deteriorating “niche” products!

        • Merlin says:

          By the way, anyone wearing this is banned from my next black sabbath!

          • Jessica says:

            Ah, The Sisters of Mercy… and “Lucretia, My Reflection”… *pauses to reflect*

            You’re right about commercialism and the irony of alternative-culture merchandise…! I do remember my feelings upon first seeing a Hot Topic store. lol.

          • Merlin says:

            Jessica,
            ‘just walk on air…’:)

      • dhoakohime says:

        I soo agree with you! Here in spain they brought sex gang children for only 13 euros the entrance and all the mass of goth assh** instead of coming to see such a classic went to the every-saturday-uberexpensive-club that plays the same ebm session every friday for 12 euros!! and then, when sex gang ended came to the same club for the “after session” paying another 12 euros!!! that day i lost my faith for gothic culture…..totally…and i agree with what Jessica says in the review about the value of self made stuff..or stuff difficult to obtain..i don’t think you are wrong there… A thing that is harder to do or get implies that you put more effort in it, that means more interest, that means that when you finally get it the satisfaction is also higher.

        • Jessica says:

          Well, I’m glad to know that my remarks rang true for you, so that I’m not *just* getting sentimental over my own teens and early twenties! ;)

          • dhoakohime says:

            No sentimentalism at all!! pure logic!! jaja

  6. wondermelmo says:

    So I can only chime in and agree I’d also hoped for more. Yes, the bottle is decidedly lovely and I approve of all that Illamasqua claims to stand for…thus my disappointment with the juice.

    Ladies, may I join you in your dark corner? I can ply you with drink and offer a Legendary Pink Dot mix to add to the playlist…

    • Jessica says:

      I like the brand for its makeup and overall aesthetic, too… sigh. Do join us.

  7. MelissaJane says:

    I was quite humored by the whole concept of Freak bec on me it starts out like OJ Woman, which I adore, but ends up a few hours later smelling of a traditional retro-style rosy musk and patchouli base, very much an almost proper type of scent!

    • Jessica says:

      Yes, it could easily be worn to work or a family gathering or any other “polite” event! Not what we might have expected, at all!

  8. nozknoz says:

    S-ex by S-Perfume is a weird leather.

    Also, I happened to be sampling Dipytyque L’Eau today, which was a good match for photos of 18 Folgate Street on various websites such as Madame Guillotine and A Melange et Moi. Also sampling over the long weekend Via del Profumo Sharif, Tabac and Oud Caravan. There is wonderful weirdness to these natural scents with their antique echoes.

    • Jessica says:

      I like these suggestions! Need to try some of them. You’re right, Diptyque’s L’Eau is odd in an antique-y way. Thanks, Noz!

    • ockeghem says:

      I second the recommendation for S-ex. It’s probably the weirdest thing I own, and I do love weird.

      I like incense fragrances, but I don’t really associate them with my Goth-ish, Cure- & Smiths-loving, poetry-writing high school phase; they remind me of cathedrals. But I am a fan of a good incense like Tauer Incense Rose or CdG Avignon or Eau d’Italie Sienne l’Hiver.

      If I have to go dark, I usually fall back on my SL Bois de Violette or PG Felanilla. Both are a bit sweet (especially the Felanilla), and maybe a bit too comforting to be truly dark. If it’s spring or I want to feel like dark, damp spring, I’ll pull out the CB I Hate Perfume Black March.

      Definitely would love to see more weird in the perfume world…looking forward to everyone’s suggestions.

      • Jessica says:

        I think a few of the Serge Lutens “Bois…” fragrances would qualify as dark and weird! I still need to try PG Felanilla…

  9. APassionateJourney says:

    I HATE that I can’t find this anywhere in the United States to test! I do hope I can test this because I don’t want to blind buy it first but I’m afraid I might have to! Ahhhhh!

    • Jessica says:

      Journey, It *is* frustrating. I asked for it in Sephora, hoping to see the bottle in person, and was surprised to realize that it’s only being offered online.

  10. Flora says:

    Well, opium poppies are scentless, the poison hemlock is the noxious weed that killed Socrates, not the “black hemlock” found in other perfumes which is from the evergreen tree also called hemlock, and the “belladonna” plant aka deadly nightshade STINKS to high heaven when your bruise the leaves, and I mean it is really rank, so whatevs! Obviously there is not a whole lot of anything in this that is actually botanical in origin except maybe the davana? Too bad, because I like the concept a lot.

    • Jessica says:

      Flora, whatevs indeed! I do really like the concept, and I’m always happy to allow some poetic license, but this one just didn’t “deliver” for me.

  11. perfumelover says:

    Hi Jessica
    Thanks for your review :D It is wonderful
    I’m sorry that this “freak” fragrance was not freak!
    Myrrh is included in its list of notes. I love myrrh. I used to wear a L’Occitane fragrance that contained it.

    • Jessica says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I liked some of those spicy/woodsy L’Occitane scents, too.

  12. Idhren says:

    I adore this fragrance. The bottle is beautiful and the fragrance is more dark than light and allthough nothing as special as Serge Lutens (I love Chergui for example), still something new to my nose. It reminds me a bit of cologne in the early stages. I did expect something a little more distinctive and special, but I’m glad to own this beautiful bottle with a liquid that seems to smell just really really good on me.

    I’m kind of put off that “dark” and “freaky” are immediately associated with “goth”, as I don’t relate to that myself, allthough I adore darkness and freakiness for their mysterious mood and psychological implications of “people are not simple” -kind of way. That being said, I have never been involved with any subcultural costume movements, atleast other than being a geek. With this backdrop I don’t get that vibe from Illamasqua either: more like just being a bit more coragious, experimental and well, darker than most cosmetics brands. Just my own impressions though.

  13. jasper-84 says:

    I’m a guy I ordered a bottle from sephora.com the ad campaign got me the visuals are really magical mystical Projects a image in my head of Miranda Richardson As queen Mab From Merlin I’ve not smelled freak but I wanna smell like a dark mystical fairy queen haha ok I’m kidding for arguments sake I will settle on smelling like Jareth aka David Bowie in the film labyrinth i hope it smells nice I had a promo code for $15 off any purchase of $50 or more at sephora and the shipping was free so I spent like $80 and change on this when I get my hands on it I will come back and share my thoughts I will be honest I promise

    • Jessica says:

      That was a good coupon! I missed my chance to use it…

  14. jasper-84 says:

    Well freak arrived today I sprayed it one time on the top of my hand it has a soapy clean smell I get burnt orange there is a heaviness like lotion there’s a little smell of leather there’s a sweetness not over powering sweet it smells like some thing a very classy older woman would wear its not distinctively femmine smells like some thing Christian Dior would make a long the lines of fahrenheit but more subtle sweet soapy I may have smelled some thing similar to it by Cartier that also had a leather smell having said all that I like it am I in love with it no are people going ask what fragrance is that yes not your run of the mill floral scent the ad campaign and this scent I don’t feel they relate I hope this is helpful I’ve never done a fragrance review but I am a fragrance fanatic

    • Jessica says:

      Hi Jasper-84, I agree that it’s not your run-of-the-mill floral, and that it still doesn’t really match the description and ad campaign… oh well! Hope you’ll still enjoy it. Thanks for chiming in!

  15. jasper-84 says:

    It is a nice fragrance and the packaging and bottle is very nice too but my favorite fragrances are any of the YSL L’homme and top favorite is creed silver mountain water I think if your in the mood to wear some thing different from your usual favorites freak is a nice addition

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