Cloves But No Cigar

– A review of the reformulated ‘Coco de Chanel’

‘Tis a perilous business to venture into your local perfume store these days, perilous not because I might be tempted beyond endurance, but because I’m too afraid I’ll have hysterics over all the murder victims lurking on the shelves. Too many of my all time top-ten perfumes have been changed beyond recognition, indeed beyond repair in some cases, and sometimes, the thought makes me want to cry.

The other day I passed by one local store, and decided to bypass each and every one of the umpteen new releases and flanker editions that were even more boring than the originals. I did spray a few on paper I had somehow missed, to see if I had missed out. Among them Mugler’s ‘Womanity’ and ‘Alien’, which were neither so bad I wanted to run screaming out of the store, nor so good I was tempted. Of the two, I liked ‘Alien’ better, but man – the sillage! The sillage explains the name – surely this is intergalactic jasmine sambac sillage? This stuff could be used as an Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction. My eyes water just thinking about it.

Yves Saint Laurent Paris – the change apparent from the color scheme on the box – was once one of the most glorious rose-violet olfactory creations ever to grace yours truly – and loyal fans by the millions. No more. Now, ‘Paris’ is an anemic, wan shadow of her rosy-purple self, suitable only for tweenies with no discrimination, not even worthy of the name. No rose, less violet. Don’t even get me started on the abomination called ‘Parisienne’. Surely, Monsieur Saint Laurent is rolling in his grave? He would never have put his venerable name on that.

There was a rare bottle of Miss Dior of so many memories, not another version of ‘Miss Dior Chérie’, but plain and simple ‘Miss Dior’. My very first grown-up bottle of perfume. I tried to stop myself, really, I did. Resistance was futile. It would end in tears. I sprayed some on paper. Ah, the pain of it! They killed ‘Miss Dior’ and never bothered with a burial, but left her for the wolves of reformulation to rot in ignominy. Oh, the shame of it!

Somehow, I managed to compose myself, if barely. There were tears hiding just beneath the surface, but One. Must. Stay Calm.

On I sidled along the shelves, nope, not interested inn anything Boss Orange, or anything Cacharel. I had reached Chanel, and geez, how many ‘Chance’s can a customer stand? Chanel, one of the last independent major-league perfume houses on Planet Earth, should know better. I know I do – ‘you’re-SO-not-our-demographic, dahling’.

No. I know too much, I’m too old and too jaded. Past no. 19, known and loved to this day, and I don’t need another right now, the one I have at home is still going strong.

Which was when I saw it, when I had that Epiphany Moment. Making no fuss of itself, and looking nearly exactly the same as of yore, back in the day when neither fashions nor perfumes could have shoulders that were wide enough, sillage that was potent – enough. In those days, I wore it and some close cousins to give me that courage life had yet to teach me. So I told myself at the time, at least, but the simple fact was, I had a boyfriend at the time who liked Loud and Proud on me, and I did my best to oblige – with Paloma Picasso, YSL Paris, Cabochard, Magie Noire – and Coco de Chanel. All of them representing Liquid Courage, and none of them suited for blushing violets of any stripe.

Coco de Chanel was a constant companion and eternal favorite, a gloriously opulent Oriental that was the epitome of Classy-Sexy-Dame, a perfume even my notoriously fickle mother liked on me. That the sillage also slayed several boyfriends throughout the Eighties and early Nineties was only a bonus side effect.

Feeling like the last of the living Ostrogoths that day last week in the perfume shop, I decided to give it a go on my skin, to see if it could make me cry. I reached for the Eau de Parfum.

From that first and only blast it was apparent that it had been changed, certainly in the top notes. The peach is less obvious, the orange and mandarin not quite so noticeable and rich.

I told myself I wouldn’t cry. So I walked away and out the door and on to the other errands of my day.

Ten minutes later, that classic rosy Chanel note, this one accentuated with clove, cinnamon and orange blossom, bloomed forth and…took me away, to the woman I once was, before I lost most of my illusions. Cloves! Clover! It was all…still there, and not merely figments of my imagination.

Oh, yes! This was Coco all right, this wasn’t damaged beyond hope or repair, this was…seriously, why didn’t I own a bottle any more?

But Coco truly came into her own in the dry-down, when the labdanum, the opoponax, the sandalwood, amber and vanilla came to call. This was the eau de parfum, with more focus on those base notes, and they seemed to my uneducated nose to be as thick and as opulent as always.

Certainly, she was tenacious as always. Coco stayed – and stayed – and stayed. Forty-eight hours later, it was still definitely discernible on my jacket, even to my roommate, who has the olfactory abilities of a wooly mammoth with a bad head cold.

If Coco were a Tarot Card, she would be…the Major Arcana card called ‘Strength’. For courage, for determination, for tenacity, for daring to wrestle the lions of life unscathed and unafraid, bold and beautiful and strong.

Just like another kind of woman I want to be. Coco goes on my to-die-for list. Maybe as a belated Xmas present – from the young woman I once was to the woman I am now.

Notes according to Fragrantica:
Top notes: Coriander, pomegranate blossom, mandarin orange, peach, jasmine and bulgarian rose
Middle notes: mimosa, cloves, orange blossom, clover and rose
Base notes are labdanum, amber, sandalwood, tonka bean, opoponax, civet and vanilla.

Photo: Vanessa Paradis as the face of Coco de Chanel 1992, from