Modern “Chypres”

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Serge Lutens’ Chypre Rouge & Grossmiths Golden Chypre © Victor Wong

I once wrote about Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete and how much I liked it, and a Facebook friend told me I was a “closeted chypre lover”. Poor me, it’s not me who was in denial, it’s just that I didn’t know this summer perfume from the 90s was actually a chypre.

By “definition”, a chypre is a perfume with an accord composed of citrus, labdanum, oakmoss and musk. I am lucky to have a small decant of the very first chypre, “Chypre” by Coty (1917), so I know what this classic accord (perfume in this case) smells like, and without better words, it’s the “grandma” accord. The chypre accord is unique, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine if I say chypre is the colour brown, but you have never seen such color and I say it’s the result of mixing of yellow and blue and red, maybe you will have a hard time “visualizing” what it is like. However, if you have smelled it before and are able to “memorize” that smell, you can tell there are countless vintage perfumes that share the same chypre common denominator – one sniff and you can tell Guerlain’s Mitsouko is a chypre, Aromatic Elixir is a chypre, Dior’s Diorella is a chypre, Paloma Picasso is a chypre…

Then come the modern perfumes who claim that they are chypres, but I just couldn’t recognize them as chypres. You know, in the old days, in art classes as a kid you would draw people of different nationality circling around the Earth hand-in-hand, a Dutch is a white milkmaid wearing wooden shoes and an American wears a cowboy hat, but now I can call myself a Canadian but boy, do I look Chinese even holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee. This chypre genre has blurred so much that my nose needs yoga training for flexibility and enlightenment.

Serge Luten’s Chypre Rouge (2006) and Grossmith’s Golden Chypre perhaps are two good examples of dubious chypres.

I remember two ladies in a Facebook fragrance group both say Chypre Rouge is one of their favourite perfumes. If I didn’t know the name of the perfume, just by the smell alone I can see why it’s attractive to them. It smells like the red gooseberry sauce that IKEA cafeteria serves when you order a plate of Swedish meatballs. On top of that, you have the beautiful sweet aroma of red wine mixed with honey. It’s quite romantic, “rouge”, maybe too sweet for me, but no way Jose it’s a chypre. I refuse to acknowledge it. Sorry. Ok, maybe, I don’t know, but the sweetness and fruitiness of this perfume cover whatever chypre element there is.

Grossmith’s Golden Chypre, on the other hand, is a real chypre, but it took me a few wearings to recognize it because the chypre part is very light. (I am sure some people can recognize it right away.) Golden Chypre really is golden, but not vulgar like Paco Robanne’s gold bar shaped bottle One Million, for the smell is like the shimmering blurry ocean of the California coast at dawn. Initially light and citrusy, then the warmth and the rich powderiness of geranium, accentuated by the spicy nutmeg and deep patchouli slowly spread around. The chypre-ness actually flashes before your nose when you first spray it, and shortly goes away like the Big Bang, and reappears faintly when the perfume reaches dry down. An excellent modern perfume, but not as “granny” as I would have expected from Grossmith, a brand since 1835.

Now I shall reach for my bottle of Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete to study it again.

A comment from my Facebook friend, Henrique, on chypres:

I think that what people miss on the chypre is that it’s not a closed system. It’s a texture, an idea of contrast between the aforementioned elements. Like Fougere, the idea was abstract enough to let you modify those elements, extend it through the different fashions of each era. After all, if we made the definition stiff, what would come next wouldn’t be classified as a chypre. For me, for instance, the 80’s floral chypres are hardly classic chypres, but they are able to convey the light-darkness contrast in a different way.

Modern chypres do this also, but they are more subtle in this contrast. Still, they don’t claim to be classic chypres, so it does make sense. And for those that say they are repetitive, classic ones were also too, if you start to test one after the other you’ll see that. This is what happens when a trend, an idea or olfactory family becomes popular. The only difference is that classic chypres arrived on a time that we didn’t have social media to talk and compare them. And we didn’t have either as many launches as we have today, which makes this sameness pop out more easily.

And since you mention art, I would like to point out that many art movements rescue something from an old art movement and put it in perspective with what is happening at that moment. Perfume is not different and we shouldn’t expect the same olfactory themes to remain the same as the times goes by.

Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012)

Grossmith's Saffron Rose (2012)
Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012) © Victor Wong
A perfume boutique owner once told me a story of a customer who wanted to give himself a “surprise” – he asked to be left alone to sit in the corner of the shop so to read all the promotional materials of the perfumes that the shop carried. An hour later, he stood up and made a purchase based on what he had just read.
 
I wonder if he has got himself a pleasant surprise or a disappointment? Most people on the Internet are against “blind buying” perfumes, and the reasons are obvious. Even by studying the perfume notes breakdown, it is still of little use – you don’t know the proportion of each ingredient in the perfume. When a perfume says it has rose and patchouli, you might get a rose perfume with a hint of patchouli, or a patchouli perfume with a hint of rose.
 
Last week I played a round of “Wheel of Fortune – Perfumista Blind-Buy Edition.” The stakes were quite high, for I saw a few slices of “Bankrupt” on the wheel.
 
“Are you sure?” my friend who worked at the boutique worriedly asked.
 
“Yes. I have asked a friend who has smelled all the Grossmith perfumes and he said this one was the best,” I replied.
 
“Ok,” and the credit card was swiped, my neck bled a little, and irreversibly the cashier iPad displayed the message, “PAID, sucker.”
 
You may wonder why didn’t I smell the testers in the shop first? Well, the shop actually didn’t have Grossmith testers. I don’t know if Grossmith simply don’t provide or sell testers or this particular shop didn’t buy testers from Grossmith. Anyway, this purchase was a pure shopping-therapy kind of indulgence.
 
I tore open the shrink-wrap, and carefully took out the bottle and sprayed some on my wrist, took a sniff, and let her take a sniff too.
 
“Oh my, this is amazing! It smells very warm.” she exclaimed. (Remember that she had never smelled any Grossmith perfumes before this.)
 
I believe that was a sincere expression. However, in my head, I thought, “Oh shit, oh shit, this was not what I expected. Where’s the rose? Where’s the rose?”
 
I had this reaction due to the fact that 1) I expected it to be a rose perfume, 2) I had never smelled a perfume with this much saffron (real or not) in it. Stronger than sniffing a bottle of real saffron before I stingily put just a little in a Spanish paella, it was medicinal, but moist, rich, warm. So much so, as if the valve of the awesome dispenser broke and awesomeness couldn’t stop spewing out like a rainbow – I was a little dumbfounded.
 
As I was about to reach home, it was half an hour since I had sprayed one spray of Saffron Rose on my wrist, and I sniffed again. Damn, this was Le Labo Rose 31. The dry down of Saffron Rose was actually Rose 31, the whole perfume, but better – spicy, woody, powdery, tobacco-y and of course, with some saffron and rose. C’est la vie.