I tumble in and out of bed with Guerlain. It can often feel a little licentious. I flirt with the counters, fantasise about the vanillic rollercoaster filth of Double Spirtueuse Vanille , the haunting rosy-hued drydowns of Nahéma, the fire and ice eroticism of Jicky or the vast thrumming expanses of Derby. I imagine my skin lacquered in the legendary Guerlinade base, laying down spoors of chypré-tinted desire in a hundred imaginary nights. So many nights, rooms, hotels and sheets, so much skin scented with Guerlain. I can smell fingers and shoulders, echoes of Chamade, Insolence, Parure, Attrape Coeur and a tumble of mingled names and sly and fevered meetings.
Over the years however, I have occasionally wondered where this noble House was going. There have been good years and lean, sterile ones. There seemed to be an on/off sense of olfactory and stylistic schizophrenia at play. Sometimes rarified and pretentious scents were released with limited distribution and without any real thought to perfumery or effect. These ran alongside mass market and weakly executed fragrances that seemed to be mere reflections of other contemporary heavy hitters. Guerlain seemed to be playing catch up and then when in doubt, like many other brands to be fair, the prestigious House would fall back on their archives or iconic scents and tweak or re-orchestrate a classic or two and hope their loyal clientele would still dip their noses deep into the Guerlain myth. Yet, occasionally, amidst the darkness there was always something burning, the myth made real, a flame of beauteous love, a sense of real perfumery, sensual, connective and waiting to burnish a million skins. It is this potential and magic that binds followers loyally to Maison Guerlain.
Some houses are not really made to be too contemporary. Dior, Caron and Chanel also fall into this category, their attempts over the years to more blatantly follow trends or appeal to the fickle late teen/early twenties age bracket have come unstuck. Grand Houses need loyalty and to be honest the whole point of youth is disloyalty and fickleness. Everyone knows someone who has worn Mitsouko, Dioressence, Chanel No 5, the Garboesque drama of L’Heure Blue or the shimmering insouciance of Vol de Nuit. There is so much prestige and tactile luxury behind Maison Guerlain. The brand drips history like a comb oozing honey in the summer sun. Many brands go a little awry when attempting modernity. I mean…I know Dior Addict is successful but it is a horrific scent that sits awkwardly at Maison Dior. And what were Chanel thinking with Coco Noir? It is a dull, airbrushed confection with little merit. The bottle is beautiful (the only real Noir thing about it really…), but the juice could never claim to be anything other than generic. On the other hand Dior’s La Collection Privée and the Chanel Exclusives are very beautiful and have raised the bar in terms of archival reissues. A little restraint may be in order now though, they have been in danger of being over-stretched in recent years. There is only so much referencing of Chanel’s possessions and influences (Jersey, Cormomandal etc) and Christian Dior’s weekend pied-à-terre (Milly-La-Forêt) before it begins to sound a little arch and contrived. Sadly Caron have been over the place for years now. Their fragrances have been eroded by reformulation, strange, inappropriate launches and the resolutely old-fashioned tone of their PR and marketing.
I think a lot of big names were startled by the sudden and starry success of the first raft of Tom Ford Private Blend fragrances, which appeared all at once and offered men and women a sizeable scented whack of uber-glamourous alternatives to high street and more traditional established names. Ironically Ford basically paid homage to many of these iconic house in his own lacquered high fashion way, but I think it made many perfume houses realise that they could start charging more and customers started wanting something more than just relentless attempts to capture elusive perfumed zeitgeists. Ford’s trick was to make everything bigger, glossier and bolder. Sexy advertising and slick packaging dazzled the weary consumer eye. Essentially Ford sold his soul to the spirit of Studio 54, re-visited some great perfumery hits along the way and demonstrated how much he learnt at YSL and Gucci. Marrying it altogether with lashings of sex and of course himself at the hirsute centre was the icing on the cake. His fragrances have sold spectacularly well.
The lustre started to come off Guerlain as reformulation crept in. The sudden realisation that Mitsouko, one of Guerlain’s most iconic scents, was going under the knife triggered panic buying among perfume lovers across the world. Their benchmark Vetiver is a shadow of the vibrant original I wore in my teens and now smells tinny and hollow like a washed out aluminum can in comparison to the savannah depth of the original. Many of the eaux de parfums strengths have started to feel oddly synthetic in the background and some of the eaux de toilette formulae are beginning to smell suspiciously thinned out. I have really noticed this in Samsara, one of my all time favourite Guerlain fragrances, a glorious milky blend of sandalwood and jasmine. Jean-Paul Guerlain added a beautiful and deliberate overdose of sandalwood. This meant he had to recalibrate the levels of the other notes to compensate for the rush of woods, so Samsara originally smelt startling new and 3D for its time. Over the years I have noticed the woods becoming more stretched out, a kind of olfactory deforestation at work. Samsara now smells more aerien, the fabulous density that once oozed out of it, the boozy Guerlinade, smelling of spiced rum casks has now started to whiff as fake as boxed cake mix. The last bottle I bought felt a little screechy in top levels like an aging soprano, failing to reach her upper register.
The highly publicised problems with Jean-Paul Guerlain bruised and tainted the image of the brand and raised the ghosts of France’s colonial past at a time when the country was trying very hard to make peace with its tumultuous political history. The revered and humbled Monsieur Guerlain was quietly removed and Thierry Wasser moved centre stage. Wasser had been working with Guerlain, alongside Jean-Paul since 2008. He trained at Givaudan and joined Firmenich in 1993. He is an eclectic perfumer, his oeuvre includes many of the Aqaba scents, Sweet Dreams 2003 for Lab on Fire, Diamonds for Emporio Armani and Jill Sander Man. However, his work for Guerlain has been a little hit and miss so far.
I liked his Quand Vient La Pluie from 2007, a delicate rendering of heliotrope and jasmine with a strange roasted rosemary and praline drydown. This was a subtle fluttering homage to the bittersweet masterpiece Après L’Ondée. It achieved the near perfect effect of feeling like silk being teased over skin. Serge Mansau’s sculptural flacon was elegantly designed, reminiscent of Japanese calligraphic ceramics. Mansau also designed the bizarre and lovely Insolence tilted sci-fi bottle, which is one of my all-time favourite contemporary flacons.
Wasser’s Myrrhe et Délires (2012) was delicious too, a heavy-hitting balsamic rendering of woods, smoke, osmanthus and rose. I loved the dried fruits effects and resinous licquorice-tinted driftings as it set on the skin like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.
Less successful was Guerlain Homme (2008), much anticipated, yet blatantly generic. A minty woody mouthwash mash-up, with a shrill lime note shot through it with no real attention as to how the actual construction might smell on human skin. I hated it. It smelt formulaic and had no discernible Guerlain atmospherics. The recent Boisé flanker was better, but still a little meh…..
I always try and visit Guerlain counters in whichever city I find myself. (You never know if you’ll stumble across some discontinued or pre-reformulation gem…..). When I went to Moscow for work a couple of years ago, the women on the Guerlain counters were very passionate; in love with the brand and its ornate history. Something about the decadence and sensuality of the perfumes matched the sudden wave of desire for a sense of personal history and memories buried amid the colder Soviet years. Obviously Paris is the Guerlain spiritual home, the gleaming, scented temple on the Champs Elysées, but I often think of the beautiful Russian girl with dark green eyes extolling her passion for L’Heure Blue on a chilly January morning, her dark red nails, touching the bottles with due reverence.
Now, I have worn La Petite Robe Noire before in one of its previous incarnations. This new version is in fact the third. The original exclusive edition was released back in 2009 and then another tweaked edition appeared in Spring 2011. This new incarnation is a purportedly more mass-market scent for all of us to slip into and gad about in. Supported by a fabulously orchestrated chi-chi campaign by Kuntzel+Deygas, La Petite Robe Noire has become a rather iconic presence on counters already. The Little Black Dress Girl, with her flowing flirty lines and tilted hat hiding her mysterious face is the perfect image for such a shape-shifting scent. There are echoes of different fashion ages in her lines and curves, her little boots, frilled skirt and joie de vivre. She could be a 60s chick, Parisian demoiselle or a naughties Russian art babe cavorting at a Venetian vernissage on the arm of her billionaire tycoon boyfriend.
Kuntzel+Deygas were responsible for the stylish opening credits for Spielberg’s frothy Catch Me If You Can and reworked the iconic Pink Panther for the (sadly feeble) 2006 film reboot with Steve Martin. Their delightful work on La Petite Robe Noire has been well received and has proved to be quite persuasive, garnering as much attention as the fragrance itself. The overall swish and very French flirtiness of the line and feel of the concept to the use of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walking will I think become a very recongisable brand image, and easily transferred into a whole range of associated products for years to come.
It is interesting that Guerlain has chosen to develop a different style of marketing with a broader appeal, it seems both timeless, youthful and modern. The young ingénue could be Hepburn in Funny Face, Jesssica Chastain or beautiful Bérénice Bejo in L’Artiste. Choosing not to use a celebrity in a celebrity-saturated world is a frankly refreshing move. Indeed the young perfume ingénue recently gave a playful and typically coy ‘interview’ for Wonderland magazine. So the carefully arranged image of the scent has become as pervasive as the scent itself. The two factors have created a potential cult bestseller for Guerlain.
This latest incarnation of La Petite Robe Noire by Thierry Wasser has however received mixed reviews across the blogosphere. A lot of people critising its safety and overt overtures to the more mainstream side of the high street consumer perfume market. But you know what, haters are always gonna hate. I really wanted to like this version and I ended up loving it. I wasn’t expecting anything superlative or on a par with the great Guerlain classics. I have always had a real passion for the darker more concentrated version of Insolence, all hairspray hysteria and space age berry dust. When I first smelled LPRN, I smelt this fabulous hazy Elnett accord again, buzzy with cherry, almonds and iris. It is chic and classic, simple and just a teensy bit frivolous. And with all things classic, there is an element of safety. Hence our hankering for objects that fit all our moods and stand the tests of many times.
I have to admit to liking the slight Guerlain naughtiness in ‘borrowing’ la petite robe noire, or the little black dress, a silhouette classically associated with Chanel. It’s akin saying you may make it…..but we can wear it. The campaign has really focused on the LBD, the bottles have three different variations on them and many launch sites across the globe have used oversize and flamboyantly eye-catching versions of the black dress. Chanel have never actually had ownership of the LBD, it’s just been one of those subtle things that has seeped into our style consciousness over the decades since Coco Chanel started cutting away at the female silhouette.
It is a very playful and simple fragrance to slip into. Thierry Wasser has decided to sweeten darkness if you like, layering up the Bulgarian and Turkish roses with licquorice, smoked tea, a gentle aniseed facet and lovely rounded velveteen tonka, iris and vanilla notes in the base. I really like the dancing top notes of berries and bergamot, the smeared cherries and marzipan surround and the way the fragrance spins like a giddy tot in a candy store before settling into something smoother and more adult. It never loses sight of its gentle frivolity, the shortness of its skirt…. But at the same time, the colour palette is balanced enough to allow little shots of plum, burgundy, blood and smoke to filter through the gothic princess tones. I smell little truffly echoes of Veltol as it settles on my skin, the lovely melancholy fairground note beloved of Mugler in his transcendent (and divisive) Angel. This new Guerlain feels cleverly arranged, a comfortable contrivance, but above all tremendous fun to wear. By no means a masterpiece or return to the glory days of Haute-Guerlain, but nonetheless an interesting exercise in Vampire Diary playfulness.
Portrait of Rachel Fowler by Liam Dickson. For more info on Liam, please click link below:
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For part II of this post, please click here: