Review: Chanel Égoïste — 5.0 points

Perfumer Jacques Polge had been working on ‘Black Wood’ when Chanel wanted to launch a complementary collection of menswear. However, the clothing line was ultimately cancelled, and only by a stroke of luck was ‘Black Wood’ kept in production. It was launched exclusively in Chanel boutiques as Bois Noir. As it grew more popular, Bois Noir was distributed widely and thereafter christened Égoïste as Chanel had bought the rights to the name from the photography magazine of Nicole Wisniak. The iconic television advertisement by Jean Paul Goude accompanied the launch and made it all the more infamous. But, Égoïste itself is already a strong statement of seduction. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Égoïste is a shock.

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I still recall the horror from experiencing the spiciness of Égoïste for the first time. The top of Égoïste is infused with the spicy and hot-peppery note of coriander, the sweet heat of cinnamon, and the brightness of rosewood. But what follows quickly is a surprising turn of character.

The spicy debut morphs into a suave and plump rose. The signature rose of Égoïste is, in fact, an accord of tagete oil and 3% of geranium oil at play. The fruity raspberry note of tagete oil pops up from the rosy heart of geranium. This imbues the theme with such distinctiveness that feels like juicy chunks of fruit compote bursting with flavours. To top it off, rose oil provides a floral and green spicy touch.

Égoïste sustains the rose potpourri theme towards a soft oriental fond of creamy sandalwood, vanilla, and musky ambrette seed. Late in the dry down, there is also a slight balsamic touch. By this stage, Égoïste recalls the sandalwood and balsams of Bois des Îles (Chanel, 1926). Soft and ever so slightly rosy, Égoïste surprisingly boasts a magnificent sillage and sterling longevity.

Polge wanted to do something different for a market saturated by fougères. That and having been inspired by Ernest Beaux’s lavish use of sandalwood oil in Bois des Îles, he decided to experiment with it. The result was Égoïste, a rose for men that built upon the sensual facets of sandalwood. He picked a material that had otherwise been employed predominantly in feminine compositions and supported its character with the vegetal musk of ambrette seed and creamy vanilla to create a sensual signature in the fond. This quality is further explored in a suave rose theme brought about by an accord of sharp geranium and fruity tagete oil. Égoïste also contrasts the sensual themes with the brightness of rosewood and spices, creating a dramatic interplay. Such a full-fledged rose and sandalwood theme for men is certainly avant-garde, and I have never seen anything quite like Égoïste since.

Sources: interview with Jacques Polge by Stéphane Gaboué for Hint Fashion Magazine 2nd September 2010; chanel.fr; Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors; IFRA 48th Amendment for Tagetes Oil and Absolute

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Review: Dior Homme — 5.0 points

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I say Dior Homme (2005) deserves its place on a pedestal of classics. Rarely do mainstream launches proceed without deliberation on market tests, but Dior Homme did. And its composition does not conform either: at the centre of it is iris, a material that does not have a firm ground on the masculine territory like, say, lavender or geranium. Yet perfumer Olivier Polge did an astounding job, thereby firmly establishing its place amongst masculine fragrances.

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Iris, which has the connotation of powder puff and lipstick, is not exactly a fresh note. However, in Dior Homme, its carrot facet is cleverly extrapolated with green herbs to give a fresh top note. A combination of bergamot, lavandin, geranium, and carrot seed renders the impression of aromatic green herbs. Cardamom and coriander provide a spicy contrast. Such cool herbs introduce freshness to the dense note.

The lively iris theme at heart revolves around 0.25% of orris absolute with its rich powder, carrot-like green, and chills. A peachy glow, the fruity touch of δ-damascone at 0.11%, and violet-like ionones warm and sweeten the composition. A radiant floral touch keeps the heart limpid. The glow and shimmer impart such clarity and polish, rendering an otherwise austere and sometimes dull note of iris vibrant.

Towards the base, the composition is warm and inviting. Here, vetiver is sweetened by vanilla, coumarin, and musk with a crisp ambery note of Ambrox. The resultant gourmand sweetness is brilliantly offset by the combination of myrrh and frankincense oil each at 0.5%. Patchouli conjures a surprising touch of bitter cocoa when paired with powdery iris. The character of vanillic woods strongly contrasts with that of iris, and pairing them together creates a gripping tension between warm and cool notes. It is riveting.

Offering iris as a masculine fragrance untested is a bold and risky move, but in doing so Dior and Polge have created a milestone with a memorable character and a lasting influence. The iris is rendered surprisingly fresh and spicy, and its rooty chills polished by radiant florals and glow of fruits. Then, pitted against vanillic woods and incense, it makes Dior Homme unforgettable. It is tenacious and its suave sillage of grand cru cocoa and supple leather will impress. Its boldness has certainly left a mark in perfumery.

A note on the concentrations: Since its launch, Dior Homme has been a success, spawning various incarnations. The versions which are clearly related to the original character are Dior Homme Intense (2011), which is an eau de parfum, and Dior Homme Parfum (2014) by perfumer François Demachy. The eau de parfum is like a creamy, sweet leather-cocoa as the levels of vanillin and coumarin are increased. For the parfum, its richness is overall increased, creating a dark supple leather; and the emphasis shifts to the fond with fumes of frankincense and myrrh — the blotter has been oozing these dark swirls even after three weeks from the first spray. The longevity of both is, likewise, sterling. Their presence also lingers long after one has disappeared.

Sources: fragrantica.com, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors

History and Review: Miss Dior Originale (1947) — 4.0 points

I find the reflection on the classics of perfumery just as difficult as an analysis of the literary classics. These perfumes are, for most cases, complex; they are filled with ingredients of distinctive qualities that, by modern standards, are either restricted due to safety concerns or unattainable due to social and environmental changes. The state of these perfumes is, therefore, often a pale shade of their former glory. Miss Dior Originale (1947) is a case in point. But before we smell our vintage sample, let us examine the trends and ideas surrounding the inaugural launch of Miss Dior Originale — which I shall refer to in its original name ‘Miss Dior’ in this article — to understand why it would become a smashing success of its time.

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It was 12th February 1947 at 10:30 am when those who had gathered in the salons of 30 avenue Montaigne heard the first announcement: ‘numéro un, number one’. Then, ninety silhouettes filed past the astounded crowd as Christian Dior debuted his collections: En Huit and Corolle.  They captured the feminine aesthetics of hourglass figure and of full skirts resembling a bloom with its open corolla — hence, the names ‘In Eight’ and ‘Corolla’. Amongst the silhouettes, the ‘Bar Suit’ — the cream shantung coat and rounded tails following the curves of the bust as well as the calf-length, full-pleated, black wool skirt — epitomised the aesthetics with the sloping shoulders, cinched waist, articulated bust, and padded hips. At the end of the show, the then editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Camel Snow exclaimed, clearly impressed, ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have created such a new look!’ The collections have since been dubbed ‘New Look’, which softened the shoulders, accentuated the waist, volumised the hip, and emphasised the bust. It was a repudiation of the 1920s and 1930s fashion. Dior tore off the pages of sartorial restriction, gloom, gravity, rationing, and uniforms, and revived a long-forgotten tradition of the corseted silhouette and opulence in the late nineteenth century. He opened a new chapter. A new outlook.

This thrilling sense of atavism pervaded right down to his final touch: perfume. Above all, it must translate his retrospective sense of aesthetics. Christian Dior worked with Serge Heftler Louiche, perfumer Jean Carles, and perhaps, perfumer Paul Vacher in the creation of Miss Dior, named after his sister Catherine Dior, to ensure that the creation reflects the quintessence of his couture. And rightly so, Jean Carles took to the structure of Chypre de Coty (Coty, 1917), hearkening to the heyday of the classical chypre. But he also wove into Miss Dior the green galbanum of Vent Vert (Pierre Balmain, 1945) by perfumer and colleague Germaine Cellier that he admired and the bold accords of Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946) that he created a year earlier — both were popular elements of their time.

From the first spritz, Miss Dior is unmistakably a chypre. The structure alone is foretelling, with the main chypre accord of bergamot, jasmine, patchouli, vetiveryl acetate, oakmoss, labdanum, and animalic notes comprising 60% of the composition. Yet, Miss Dior is wondrously original.

In the opening, Miss Dior sports the green citation similar to Vent Vert. It combines galbanum with a green accord based on styrallyl acetate, styrax, and aldehyde C-10 (decanal) and C-11 (undecylenic aldehyde). It feels like a fresh opening buds of gardenia. This is balanced by the spicy brightness of pepper and coriander. The sharp green top is also bridged to the floral heart by lavender and neroli.

The rich floral notes come into full-bloom with mainly a jasmine complex. Rose and confit-like tuberose also vie for attention. The green aromatic note of celery seed oil also enriches the tuberose. And, soon the warm base notes emerge.

Amber, animalic notes, and the powdery sweet combination of orris and vanillin provide the much-needed softness to contrast the sharp top notes. Much of the woody aspect in the chypre structure of Miss Dior also comes from 9.2% patchouli oil. And, what remains on skin is a combination of rich animalic musks, sweet floral powder, and warm damp-woody oakmoss.

Miss Dior harked back to the glorious chypres, but was also well-attuned to its time. The ingenious composition successfully demonstrated the versatility of the chypre structure in accommodating themes as different as leather, green, and floral. Jean Carles, though anosmic by that time, effectively placed the galbanum green of Vent Vert and the bold green accords of Ma Griffe into the classical chypre accord to take advantage of the remarkably versatile structural materials. He, then, gave Miss Dior the richness and complexity of natural ingredients such as jasmine absolute, tuberose derived from enfleurage, and even with traces of celery seed oil. The result provided such originality.

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Miss Dior is a grand parfum so inventive and idiosyncratic. But, it is also reminiscent of the sensorial richness of good old Lux soaps in the 1960s. This is also a compliment to its brilliance. That the accords of Miss Dior have trickled down to the functional scents of everyday life proves its trend-setting capability. Miss Dior is phenomenal.

Nevertheless, the fate of this classic perfume is lamentable. The current formulation of Miss Dior Originale in the eau de toilette is sorely lacking. Its verve has been lost due, perhaps, to the unattainable ingredients. For instance, oakmoss is restricted to a minimal concentration; the popularity of galbanum has waned; and the tuberose absolute of today is of a different profile than, back in 1947, when its confit-like richness was procured through costly and laborious enfleurage in India, using the now-restricted animal fats. What is left of Miss Dior Originale is a whisper of galbanum, a murky floral heart that lacks the richness and opulence befitting a classical chypre, and a fond of lukewarm oakmoss. It is now a hollow chypre, devoid of striking character and dramatic richness.

Sources: dior.com, hpprints.com, Perfumery Practice and Principles, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, vogue.ru