Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady Review

  • By: Nathan Cherry
  • Time to read: 11 min.

French niche brand Frédéric Malle has been one of the most celebrated and successful niche fragrance houses ever since its inception in 2000. The brand places an emphasis on the perfumer rather than the maison itself, and gives each of the perfumers it works with access to the best raw materials and limitless creative freedom. 

Portrait of a Lady, a 2010 release, was composed by master perfumer Dominique Ropion, and has since been critically acclaimed, often called one of the greatest rose perfumes ever made. But does it live up to its legendary reputation? 

Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady is a beautiful, powerful, and evocative perfume based on rose, patchouli, incense, and spice. With superlative performance and beautiful packaging, Portrait of a Lady is a fragrance all lovers of rose perfumes must try. 

Want to know more? Let’s take a closer look at Frédéric Malle’s Portrait of a Lady

Fragrance Notes

Top Notes: rose, cloves, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon 

Middle Notes: patchouli, incense, sandalwood

Base Notes: musk, benzoin, amber

Scent Description


First thing’s first, just as with Guerlain’s Bois d’Arménie, Dior’s Dior Homme Parfum, and Amouage’s Beach Hut Man, this is not a fragrance that I can possibly review objectively. 

I have loved Portrait of a Lady for years. It’s the fragrance that made me fall in love with the note of rose in perfumery, and a huge part of how I got into niche fragrances, near the beginning of my fragrance hobby. It also gives me a strong scent memory: a reminder of a winter trip I took to Vienna when I was twenty years old with my (then) girlfriend. 

It was snowing, and bitterly cold, at least for someone who had been in Spain for the past few months and is from Alabama. We were walking arm and arm through the Stephansplatz, the site of Stephansdom, the main cathedral of Vienna, and the busiest shopping district. It was early evening, and the warm, golden light of the shop windows spilled out onto the cool, gray paving stones like drops of amber. 

Finally we wound our way out of the Stephansplatz and into one of the many side streets that radiate off of it. Suddenly, we heard the sound of distant music, not an altogether uncommon occurrence in Vienna, the City of Music. As we continued on our way, we found that the source of the music was a small chapel whose doors were thrown open to the winter air. 

As we walked in, we were greeted with the sound of a choir singing a beautiful hymn in the rafters of the chapel, accompanied by a small chamber orchestra. They were giving a free concert for the public, and a number of other spectators were milling about the entrance, watching and listening appreciatively. 

But what struck me particularly was the scent – somewhere in the chapel, a kind of incense was burning in some unseen thurible. There was also the dry, woody coolness of the chapel and its pews, and mingled with it all the cold iron breath of winter in a stone city, the presentiment of snow in the air. 

Portrait of a Lady takes me back to that unforgettable moment instantly. 

The Scent

Portrait of a Lady is essentially a blend of rose, patchouli, and incense executed with perfection. 

The opening begins with a tart, spicy, and surprisingly fizzy blast of berries, cloves, and cinnamon, with just a touch of rose lurking underneath. But soon the fruits fade away, and the rose begins to unfurl its petals. 

This is a rich, deep, Turkish rose, also called Damask rose, one of the most treasured roses in perfumery. It’s not a sweet or jammy rose, but dry and somewhat green. In Portrait of a Lady you can smell the flush red of the petals as well as the fresh greenness of the stem and thorns. 

Soon, one of the best and most memorable parts of the fragrance comes to the fore: a raw, pungent patchouli. This is a dark, earthy patchouli, reminiscent of real patchouli oil that hippies might have worn than the pallid, crystal patchouli in fragrances like Chanel Coco Mademoiselle. It’s deep and sexy, and is blended beautifully with an equally pungent, smoky incense note. 

The patchouli, incense, and rose are supported by a smooth base of sandalwood, reminiscent of Japanese sandalwood incense, a touch of benzoin and amber for sweetness, and warm, fuzzy musk. And that’s what you get for the remainder of the fragrance’s linear drydown: warm woods, smoky incense, dirty patchouli, and blood-red rose. 

This is a dark, contemplative, mysterious, almost mystical fragrance that smells utterly intoxicating to my nose. Despite the fact that the fragrance has been reformulated and perhaps doesn’t reach the heights of the original 2010 formulation, Portrait of a Lady remains a singular work of olfactory art. 

If I were to describe Portrait of a Lady in a few words, they would be: dark, deep, rich, warm, spicy, smoky, and floral. 


The presentation of Portrait of a Lady, as with all Frédéric Malle perfumes, is elegant and refined. 


Portrait of a Lady’s box, like all Frédéric Malle fragrances, is bright red in color. 

I have a 1.0 oz (30ml) travel spray, but the box of the spray closely mimics the real deal. The name of the perfume is written in white and the perfumer (Dominique Ropion) in black, along with “Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle”, the full name of the brand. 

The red outer box slips off rather than opens up, revealing a niche into which the bottle fits snugly. 

Personally, I love the bright red color of the box and the whole design of the packaging in general. It’s classy and restrained in that way that French perfume brands, such as Chanel, Dior, and Annick Goutal tend to be, and I dig it. 


The bottle of Portrait of a Lady is similarly chic. 

If you purchase a 1.7oz (50ml) or 3.4 oz (100ml) full bottle, you’ll get a transparent cylindrical glass bottle, a glossy black cap, and a black band around the circumference of the bottle listing the name of the perfume, the perfumer, and the brand. The rich, golden color of the juice can be clearly seen. 

As much as I love the full bottle design, I think I might like my travel spray even more. It comes as a slender black plastic cylinder, with all of the information previously listed displayed on a more matte colored band of plastic. The cap is magnetic (which is always a huge draw for me) and snaps into place with a satisfying click. On the top of the cap is printed Frédéric Malle’s “logo” of sorts: “EDP|FM”, an abbreviation for “Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle”.

Overall, I love the presentation for Portrait of a Lady and for the brand as a whole. It’s simple, elegant, and totally classy. 


The performance of Portrait of a Lady is quite strong, at least in my case. 


The longevity of Portrait of a Lady is excellent. 

Two to four sprays on skin gives me eight to ten hours of longevity, and more on fabric. 

On online forums, many people have expressed disappointment with the reformulation of Portrait of a Lady and other perfumes from the brand after its acquisition by Estée Lauder in 2015. I myself can testify to the fact that it does smell different to when I first sampled it, mainly in terms of the actual density of the scent. 

However, my 2020 bottle is still strong, if not “beast mode” as it once was, which might be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences.

For me, eight to ten hours of longevity is more than enough, and the fragrance still lasts for days and weeks on fabric. 

Projection & Sillage

The projection and sillage of Portrait of a Lady are both well above average. 

Two to four sprays on my skin gives me about two hours of radiant, though not overpowering projection and arm’s length sillage.

In the old days, Portrait of a Lady was considered one of the most powerful fragrances on the market, filling up rooms and leaving a truly long wake behind it. Though those days might be gone now, Portrait of a Lady’s performance is definitely not quiet. 

One spray was enough for my friend to smell me on the other side of the room and immediately comment, “You smell nice!” It’s still got some throw to it, and I think this kind  of performance should satisfy most people. However, it definitely isn’t the beast it once was, which is something you should keep in mind when considering…

Value For Money

Each person must decide what is valuable or not valuable to them, of course. For me, Portrait of a Lady is worth the money because it is a beautiful work of art. However, you should be aware that Frédéric Malle is one of the more expensive niche fragrance brands on the market. 

A 3.4 oz (100ml) bottle of Portrait of a Lady retails for $395 ($3.95/ml). A 1.7 oz (50ml) sells for $270 ($5.40/ml), a 1 oz (30ml) for $200 ($6.66/ml) and a 0.33 oz (10ml) for $79 ($7.90/ml). 

That would be pretty rich for anyone’s blood, including for me. For what it’s worth, 100ml seems to offer the best value proposition, but it’s still almost $400 for a bottle of perfume. Even though that perfume uses some of the most beautiful raw materials and is composed by a master perfumer, the sky high price will be a turn off for most people. 

However, due to the fragrance’s massive popularity and long lifespan on the market, there is a lot of availability for Portrait of a Lady on the gray market.

I purchased my 30ml bottle for about $135, which is a lot more palatable than $395. The 100ml bottle is currently still going for around $380 on FragranceX at the moment, but I have seen it discounted significantly there and on other online fragrance retailers such as FragranceNet and MaxAroma. 

If you are looking to purchase Portrait of a Lady, I would recommend that you shop around first before buying at retail. 

Who Would Like It

Anybody that likes rich, dark, sultry, spicy, smoky fragrances will no doubt have an appreciation for Portrait of a Lady. For lovers of rose or patchouli, it is a must-try. 

However, even people who aren’t necessarily “fragheads” (as us weird perfume lovers are often called) will still find a lot to love in Portrait of a Lady. Frédéric Malle is one of the niche brands that can readily be found at higher end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks 5th Avenue, and so have a little bit more mass-market projection than, say, Zoologist or Imaginary Authors.

I’ve been complimented on the scent more than a handful of times, too, mostly by people I didn’t know, so it’s not a super challenging fragrance by any means. 

And, contrary to what the name might suggest, Portrait of a Lady is 100% unisex. In fact, when it was released back in 2010, Frédéric Malle employees were reportedly surprised by the fact that it seemed to be even more popular with men than it was with women. 

Men are often put off of rose perfumes for the fact that they are perceived as “feminine”, or due to associations with family members. However, in the Middle East, rose is actually considered to be a “masculine” flower and is predominantly worn by men, specifically the prize taif rose. 

In my view, “gendering” fragrance is silly; everyone should wear what they want to. There is nothing inherently “masculine” or “feminine” about a flower or a block of wood. So men out there, why not try a rose perfume like Portrait of a Lady? You might just end up falling in love. 

When To Wear It

Due to the smokiness and spiciness of the composition, I believe that Portrait of a Lady would be best suited for colder weather in spring, autumn, and winter. If you have an older, pre-Estée Lauder bottle, I would definitely recommend that you leave it to the cold weather, unless you want to choke someone out. 

However, the newer, less intense version, with its surprising fizziness, could actually be suited to summer evenings, though I wouldn’t suggest that you wear it in hot, humid, tropical heat. 

As for occasions, I think Portrait of a Lady is quite versatile, and could be worn at most any occasion, including to work, date nights, casual hangouts, and formal situations, so long as you adjust your sprays accordingly. 

Similar Fragrances

Seeing as how Portrait of a Lady is an incredibly popular fragrance and has been popular for twelve years now, it has spawned a host of imitators. 

One of the most visible of those would have to be Diptyque’s Eau Capitale, a similar rose-patchouli, though lacking the smokiness and spiciness of POAL. It is, however, a good deal cheaper than the Frédéric Malle. 

Italian niche brand Tiziana Terenzi’s Porpora is very close to Portrait of a Lady, complete with the rose, patchouli, incense, raspberry, and all the trimmings. At retail it is essentially the same price as POAL, but it’s available on the discounters for around $150 for a 3.4 oz (100ml) bottle. It’s got a pretty nice presentation, too. 

Penhaligon’s Belgravia Chypre is in the same genre as Portrait of a Lady, though it leans into the green, mossy, chypre category (as the name implies) rather than the dark, spicy, amberyness of POAL. 

Finally, if you want a cheap, though not necessarily low-quality clone, try Al Haramain’s Floral Sculpture. The Emirati brand makes some budget perfumes that I could take or leave, but they also have more expensive ranges that make use of higher-quality materials and come in more luxurious presentations. Floral Sculpture is part of the latter, and you can get it for around $100. 

Pros & Cons


  • A deep, dark floral beauty which has not been one-upped, even after reformulation
  • Beautiful and classy presentation
  • Solid performance


  • Expensive, even for the niche market
  • It has been reformulated and is lighter than it once was 
  • Performance could be stronger for such an expensive scent

The Final Word

Portrait of a Lady is a brilliant perfume that I would classify as a work of olfactory art. Though it has been reformulated and is not as powerful as it once was, it nevertheless is a fragrance worth buying or at least testing for all lovers of rose, patchouli, and incense. It certainly offers a lesser value proposition than other fragrances I’ve reviewed here, but if you can find a deal on it, I give it my highest recommendation. 

All that being said, I will award Frédéric Malle’s Portrait of a Lady an enthusiastic: 

★★★★★ 5 stars out of 5