I once lavished praise on Chanel N°19 (1970) and argued for why it deserves a place on the pedestal of classics. Perfumer Henri Robert employed aroma ingredients and sumptuous natural materials—galbanum, iris, May rose and jasmine, and vetiver—to explore and extrapolate the ideas of superb contemporaries, such as Cabochard (Grès, 1959) and Aramis (1965). He wove together an idiosyncratic accord of green galbanum, buttery orris, and mossy woods, and gave an inspiring successor to the old-school chypre perfumes. In a similar vein, perfumer Aliénor Massenet draws on this backbone and carves out a niche for Italian Leather (Memo, 2013)
Despite the name, it is not so much an interpretation of leather from Italy as a road trip in Italy, which is the vision of Clara Molloy, the founder of Memo. The very first note that strikes is the piercing green of galbanum, but it is quickly softened by aromatic clary sage so that the impression the green accord gives is of sticky tomato sprigs. How fitting. After all, a road trip in Italy must surely involve tomatoes?
The green lingers, gradually tempered by the buttery iris that emerges. There it is, the marvel of Chanel N°19 revisited. Whereas the galbanum-orris accord in Chanel N°19 is joined by dark woods, the green tomato leaf and soft orris in Italian Leather transition slowly into a complex oriental accord. If this were an Italian road trip, it would be in Tuscany, where the gentle zephyr carrying the scent of the evergreen cypresses tempers a warm summer afternoon.
After that oriental languor comes the sweet vanillin, the long-awaited climax of the act. But if it were just that, Italian Leather would not be nearly as compelling as it is. Joined by benzoin and warm labdanum, darkened by myrrh and balsams, and rounded by musks, the accord is faceted and rich, with a hint of molasses. I particularly cherish the part one hour into the development, in which opoponax lends much of the powdery, velvety comfort. And, all this while, the green sap of tomato sprig sticks, keeping the heft of the oriental accord grounded.
It bears a relationship to Chanel N°19 and a more recent release, Vert d’Encens (Tom Ford, 2016). It borrows the galbanum-iris interplay from the former, whilst in the latter, the bitterness of galbanum is tamed with citrus and herbs and a peppery frankincense is thrown into the oriental accord. If you relish these and their original, multi-faceted accords with challenging green notes, you may well revel in sniffing Italian Leather. And, like these two other fragrances, it possesses great lasting power.
I am drawn to it not only because of the strength of its character but also the depth of its accords. Massenet did not simply take the backbone of Chanel N°19 and tweak it to give us a pastiche. On the contrary, attention has been paid closely to the notes that make up and balance the accords. The harsh character of green galbanum is softened by clary sage. The oriental accord is a complex plot of multiple shades and textures, from luminous to dusky balsams. Ingeniously, the duality of orris—its chilly crunch and buttery facet—is used to bridge the transition. In Italian Leather, Massenet achieves an equipoise of green and oriental notes rich in nuances.