Resurrection Royale

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– a review of Houbigant Paris Fougère Royale (2010)

Imagine you consider yourself a Parisian gentleman of some class and discernment. You know your forks, your knives, your ps and your qs. You are fortunate enough to be a gentleman of thought or at least a certain degree of leisure to indulge whatever impulses you might have. And although clean linen of course has never gone out of fashion for the discerning, particular gentleman of a certain class, perfume has somehow in this age of steam and noise become a decided afterthought. Pleasant enough in warm weather to cool with some eau de cologne or such, yet their thrill is too brief and linear, never complex enough to engage all your senses in one sudden, sharp and unexpectedly deep inhalation.

In this day and age (1884), it would appear that all things manmade assault the senses even as they exhilarate the minds; the possibilities in science, in the arts, in the electric and increasingly electrified currents of change in the very air, in the hiss and roil of billowing steam engines.

And then, the perfumer of Houbigant Paris, a gentleman named Paul Parquet, has an idea inspired by the great strides happening in chemistry, when he encounters a new synthetic material named coumarin. Be gone, ye soliflores and linear démodé colognes, adieu simplicity – and bonjour to a brand-new era in olfactory epiphanies: the abstract perfume.

From this day forward, perfumes can – and emphatically will! – tell stories, evoke moods and fire imaginations in ways both great and small, and nothing much at all in perfumery will ever quite be the same again.

Parquet called his new creation ‘Fougère Royale” – “Royal Fern”, and stated with all the hubris of someone who knows his own master stroke:

“If ferns had a smell, they would smell like Fougère Royale!”

Or as another highly discerning Parisian gentleman, a devoted fan himself – eloquently put it:

“It is a prodigious evocation of a forest’s scent, or maybe the moorlands, not at all a floral expression, but a portrait of its greenery.”

Say whatever you like about Guy de Maupassant (one of my favorite writers), but he knew a grand thing when he sniffed it!

Fougère Royale went on to have such a massive influence on perfumery in general and perhaps masculine perfumes in particular, that by the time Houbigant was relaunched as a luxury perfume brand and decided to reinvent their flagship perfume in collaboration with perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux, fougères had become so ubiquitous, they were their own worst olfactory cliché.

Whether shaving cream or eau de toilette, most men – in the Eighties in particular, judging by my own haunted twenty-something memories of Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Noir or Yves Saint Laurent’s Kouros to name only two, just about every man I’ve ever dated, married or lived with since my teens has a Really Big Thing for ‘manly’ fougères. Never ‘manlier’ in my opinion than Kouros, a perfume that makes me shudder to this day due to a former colleague’s habit of ODing his surroundings by wearing every single permutation of it at once. We used to joke M. Saint Laurent could smell him in Marrakesh, which is a l-o-n-g way away from Copenhagen.

No one alive has had the opportunity to sniff the original 1884 version with its overdose of coumarin. A select and lucky few have had the opportunity to sniff the Osmothèque’s recreation of it (M. Flores-Roux among them), but apart from those who own the rare 1950s version, this is what we have.

Before I say anything else, let me be as clear as possible. I’m only too aware that this version of Fougère Royale is nothing like the original, nor even its 1950s incarnation, but an altogether singular reinvented perfume. As M. Flores-Roux stated in this interview, it was, in architectural parlance, restored with respect.

Manly – schmanly! Masculine or not, I had to try it. The first perfume I ever chose for myself was Jicky extrait, itself massively inspired by Parquet’s original. I’m also a green fiend. So when I first encountered the new Fougère Royale at Pitti Fragranze in 2013, I nearly swooned where I stood.

Somewhere between that first hyper-green, citrus herbal blast, that winning combination of lavender, carnation, rose, geranium and cinnamon and the long, luscious amber-y drydown was, I’m sure of it, a love affair waiting to happen. For everything I sniffed at Pitti, Fougère Royale stuck in my mind and refused to budge.

Two years later on a Facebook perfume group, a friend had half a bottle of this gem for sale at a price even an impecunious perfume writer could afford. Before I could sneeze, I bought it. To wear, of course! Or so I thought …

Enter the Dude. True to form and my own shady past, he’s a fougère fiend. And although Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Male is an excellent fougère (as well it should be, being created by the astonishing Francis Kurkdjian), he wasted no time at all ditching it like so many old and overheated loves as soon as he encountered Fougère Royale. Less than a month into our relationship, he appropriated my precious bottle with the words “This is mine now!”, and wore it on an almost daily basis from then on, only alternating with another fougère, Amouage’s Memoir Man. Colleagues and schoolgirls complimented him everywhere, superiors sat up and took notice, and even his own family remarked that he suddenly smelled miles better than usual. (The perils of dating a perfume writer!) There, he happily remained until that sad and sorry day the bottle was as empty as a daydream.

Along the way, both he and I noted a few things. On my hyper-pale skin, it pulled greener and more floral alongside the train tracks of a spectacular chypre, even in the drydown. I detected a lot of geranium and rose with the carnation and spice. With his not-so-pale, dark-haired, hirsute, green-eyed chemistry, it slanted much spicier, classier and in a plusher, darker, amber green and fern-ish direction. I also noted something else neither of us were quite prepared for.

It had a truly remarkable effect on Janice Divacat. She refuses to leave him alone for even a minute when he wears it. Half-joking spats ensued between the Mrs. (Janice Divacat!) and the sidechick (Yours truly) over who got to sit next to him. We eventually reached a compromise once she realized the Dude has two sides, and one could be hers. She’d bury her nose in his elbow with a sigh of pure pleasure – and promptly go to sleep with a purr.

I’ve been wanting to review Fougère Royale for a long, long time, ever since that hot Saturday afternoon in Florence, but I never imagined quite how much it would literally perfume my life since then for all the right reasons. Fougère Royale, you see, has become the Dude’s ‘The One’, that perfumed self definition he had been looking for, a few scant millimeters above that other one – Memoir Man. It is incredibly classy, elegant, and is virile without trying too hard or overstating the issue. (Drakkar Noir, that would be you!) Longevity is excellent – I can get 12 hours wear out of two tiny sprays, but the Dude gets at least 15 out of four. It smells staggering on me, but on the Dude, it’s a marvel – of modernity, of intricate perfumed art and not clichéd in the slightest.

Like so much else these past two years, it’s a revelation. I call it Resurrection Royale. As soon as I can afford it, the Dude gets a refill bottle. And when I can afford the extrait, I’ll buy that for him, too. Resurrection is a wonderful thing, especially in emerald green.

Houbigant Paris Fougère Royale is available as eau de parfum and as extrait from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Houbigant Paris website.

Notes: (via Fragrantica) Bergamot, lemon, chamomile, lavender, clary sage, carnation, geranium, cinnamon, rondeletia accord, rose, lilac, oak moss, patchouli, tonka bean, labdanum.

Disclosure: My sample came as part of a stunningly presented and very reasonably priced sample pack from Houbigant Paris, paid for by me. (At the time of writing, it is currently unavailable.) My reviews and the opinions I express are always my own.

With gratitude and thanks to Jan Gonzalez for The Bottle.

Photo: A macro of a fern, via lukeobrien.com.au

 

 

Jamais Une Fougère

dyingfern –  on the perils of perfume writing

Whether justified or not, I consider myself an extremely privileged perfume writer. Not only am I lucky to have a plethora of dear and generous friends who send me wonders and marvels I might otherwise not know, I have also – rightly or wrongly – managed to make connections with perfumers and perfume houses over the past 3+ years who bear me in mind when new perfumes are released. I doubt it’s simply because of the free press they get, but because they maybe? hopefully? appreciate the idiosyncratic perspective I apply. Or so my vanity tells me.

As for me, I take this as the supreme compliment it surely is. Not only do I have something to look forward to in my mailbox besides bills, I also more often than not look forward to sinking my verbose teeth in these wonders. Because writing about perfume IS a privilege – and how else can I justify my own obsession, if not for the readers who want to know what I’ll write about next?

The thing is, I never know what will happen.

Sometimes, I’ve been borne away on a storied tide of inspiration.

And sometimes…

This post concerns one of those other times.

Usually, I much prefer to write about perfumes that move me and take me places. I prefer to write positive reviews because even if it’s something I would never personally wear, I can at least show the courtesy to attempt to move out of my comfort zone and grasp the concept, the idea of a given perfume.

But every once in a blue moon I encounter something so bad, so terrible, so poorly executed I either hurl myself into a hot Jacuzzi of seething sarcasm or else repress the overpowering urge to throw in the towel and stick to writing Gothic erotica.

Not that long ago, I received a sample of a perfume from an indie perfumer who to the best of my knowledge and research has never been the benefactor of ‘free’ blogger attention. That fact is not the reason I won’t divulge the name or the link. If anything, this blog and the one preceding it have proven my worth and my love of indie perfumery. If perfume bores you these days, I dare say you’re looking in a lot of wrong locations – there is far, far more to perfumery than ‘designer’ or ‘niche’.

What yanked the beard on my personal goat was this: The perfume sample was quite simply one of the shoddiest, shabbiest-made ‘perfumes’ I’ve ever encountered.

How can a perfume be shabby? Simple – it falls apart on impact. Literally.

Believe it or not, perfumes are emphatically engineered. Built from the base notes up, they suspend their materials in mid-air; sometimes, it’s a symphony or a full-blown Met opera production extravaganza in three acts, sometimes a sonata, an impromptu or an etude. Hot messes happen too, and that’s fine so long as they’re unapologetic. So wrong in so many ways can be so very, very right. (Guerlain Insolence, here’s looking at you!)

Well, this particular ‘perfume’ is a sweltering mess of epic proportion. I’ll explain why in a moment, but bear with me.

My happiest moments in reviewing a perfume occur when I’m able to grasp something of the mind behind it. It’s not ‘terroir’, it’s not the overall gist, it’s a fragrant intimation of the soul who conjured it from the depths of his/her creativity – that metaphorical great, cosmic grid all true artists have access to and draw their inspirations from. It’s my obligation to that soul which compels me to write a review and to be as fair and as thorough as I can.

In retrospect, the reviews that have made me happiest to write are the ones where the soul of the perfumer or Creative Director wafted out and pulled at my heartstrings and I feel that I not only grasped the concept, I nailed it.

Or in this instance, nailed it to the Perfume Wall of Shame.

Because this perfume-that-shall-remain-nameless has no soul at all. No whiff of premeditation, no coherence, no personality, and so far as I can determine, it seems to be made by someone who doesn’t even like perfume.

I’ll let that last subclause sink in for a moment.

How in the name of sacred Saint Mary Magdalene – patron saint of perfumes – can anyone claim to make perfumes if they don’t like them – to wear, to sniff, to compose?

(*Bangs head in frustration on laptop keyboard. Deep breath.*)

Ok, then. Supposedly, this is a fougère, that fabled family of perfumes that heralded the advent of modern perfumery as we know it today. I’m no stranger to fougères and love quite a few, whether the amber-carnation-y wonder that is the modern Fougère Royale by Houbigant, vintage Guerlain Jicky, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel, the fougère-ish, hyper-green, über-plush silk velvet density of Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse, the flawlessly sparkling DSH Perfumes’ Passport à Paris or even that Amouage heartbreak-in-a-bottle called Memoir Man.

Well, for about five minutes, it’s true enough.

Ceci est une fougère, biensûr!

All the usual suspects are present and accounted for; lavender, carnation, tonka bean, oakmoss. For about five minutes, I’m quite content among the ferns and flowers. Next, without even the benefit of a shark fin on the horizon, I’m dumped into the sea with the chum wearing this horror story that wants to eat me alive and drag me down to the very depths of the damned below.

I would have thought that with the notes list, it would be impossible to go wrong: tonka bean, oakmoss, lavender, carnation, clary sage, clover.

My mistake. I’ve been spoiled/ruined by all the great things I’ve written about.

One thing I’ve learned since I began to write about perfume is that its greatness or lack thereof stands or falls on its base notes. This is where the engineering, the underpinnings of perfume construction show themselves most clearly.

This is where this ‘perfume’ falls completely apart without even the benefit of scaffolding. And where the anonymous ‘perfumer’ shows a) a lack of coherence b) a lack of understanding just what ‘makes’ a perfume not to mention c) infinitely worse – a lack of even caring.

This lack of consideration takes ‘lax’ to a whole new level of audacity. Instead, it stinks, and not in a good way. The base is bitter, shrill, and obliterates everything that made the first five minutes tolerable.

With just a little more work – and a lot more care – this could have been a perfectly passable perfume. Not ground-breaking, not revolutionary, not edgy – but perfectly acceptable nonetheless.

As it is now, I’m running to apply rubbing alcohol, dish soap and whatever else I can think of to scrub it off with a Brillo pad. (I did that, actually.)

Those sharks will have to live without their teeth in my hide.

More to the point, I won’t deign to give this <cough> creation the publicity I very much doubt it deserves. No names, no links, no anything.

Because this particular ‘fern’ died of a broken, disillusioned heart a long, long time ago. It never did receive a decent burial.

But one thing it does deserve is an epitaph:

To misquote René Magritte…

Ceci n’est fut jamais une fougère.

With thanks to the friend who inspired this review.

A Past & Perfect Future

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a review of DSH Perfumes ‘Passport à Paris’

I want you to imagine a right-angled triangle. At either end of the hypotenuse, you’ll find two revolutionary perfumes, and at the other end, a painting no less revolutionary than the perfumes. All three combine to tell one singular story, each contributing its part and its facets to the space described within those three points of reference, a story I shall attempt to tell…

Next, I’d like you to imagine a point in time over a hundred years ago when the future seemed so bright the world was blinded by its promise.

What would it have been like to be raised with a philosophy of a static, fixed life, and instead as you lived be constantly confronted with a present that offered the only given of the time and indeed any time – that of perpetual change? When you have been taught to see the world in representational terms; a perfume is a single flower of violet, lilac or rose (if you were respectable) or jasmine or tuberose (if you weren’t!)?

Just as a painting is a recognizable, carefully rendered image of a familiar reality, until a group of louche bohemian painters decide to rebel against artistic convention and orthodoxy and instead paint the shimmering air between themselves and their subject matter, and as they did, the world was taught to see itself anew, to see those careless smears of oil paint as representing people, places, captured fleeting moments in time and mood.

Claude Monet's 1870 painting, The beach at Trouville.

Claude Monet’s 1870 painting, The beach at Trouville.

In that restless, roiling age, another revolution waited in the wings, one perhaps anticipated by Guy de Maupassant when he wrote:

Ah! If we had other senses which would work other miracles for us, how many more things would we not discover?

It has happened on many occasions that I’ve wondered what it would be like to go back in time and be a metaphorical fly on the wall at, say, the Galeries Lafayette in Paris in the year 1882, when Paul Parquet of Houbigant presented his own heretical fragrant revolution to the world and decided to call it Fougère Royale.

Before that moment, perfumes were composed of natural essences and absolutes aspiring to be literal representations of the flowers that named them. Parquet gave an unsuspecting world something entirely new – an abstract and evolving perfume containing a synthetic aromachemical, coumarin (supposedly in a staggering 10% concentration), and with no known frame of reference at all, but instead, as Guy de Maupassant put it, ‘a prodigious evocation of forests, of lands, not via their flora but via their greenery.’

The world was never quite the same again, neither in art nor in the art of perfume, certainly not when Aimé Guerlain glanced sideways at Parquet’s creation seven years later and gave an unsuspecting world another olfactory revolution named Jicky.

Which brings me to the apparently limitless talents of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and her third creation for the Passport To Paris exhibition at the Denver Art Museum called simply ‘Passport à Paris’. And as so often before with Dawn’s work, this one has special and highly personal meaning for me.

Her three points of inspiration – Claude Monet’s 1870 painting, The Beach at Trouville, Parquet’s original 1882 Fougère Royale for Houbigant and Aimé Guerlain’s Parquet-inspired Jicky – all somehow fed into Passport à Paris to provide not just a lesson in the zeitgeist of the time, but also to redefine it to a modern audience that has perhaps forgotten that once not so long ago, there really was no such thing as a fragrant story in a bottle.

I’ve never known Houbigant’s original Fougère Royale, and unless I make it to the Osmothèque at Versailles (trust me, it’s on the bucket list!), I never shall. But it so happens I had an opportunity to sniff the 2010 recreation by Rodrigo Flores-Roux at Pitti Fragranze last year, and it blew me away. Maybe it doesn’t have the original’s freshness and verve, and perhaps it’s a plusher, lusher interpretation of Parquet’s seminal idea, but it is all of a piece and entirely a glorious fougère, and I couldn’t wait to sniff it again – and to own it some day.

Jicky, on the other hand, is another story. Because on a beautiful day in early May in Paris a long, long time ago, Jicky was the very first perfume the 14-year-old tomboy I then was chose for myself. Like all teenage daughters throughout all time, I defined myself in my mother’s despite. If she chose Mitsouko and Shalimar, then I would instead choose something she would never wear, something for me alone and the me I hoped to become; unconventional, audacious, herbal-green and with more than a few hints of the sensuality I hoped to find in my nebulous future. At the time, I also knew that my literary idol Gabrielle Sidonie Colette wore Jicky, and if it were good enough for Colette, who was I to argue?

I wore Jicky throughout my teens and well into my twenties until I learned to define myself in other ways through other perfumes, but then again, you never do forget your first love. Not if you were Aimé Guerlain in a past life, nor even a young woman with a secret aspiration to set the world alight with her words.

So you can well imagine that immediate rush of emotion, recognition and revelation when I sprayed Passport à Paris for the first time.

I nearly fell off my chair.

In an instant, I was brought back to those two moments – a surreptitious sniff and two sprays at the crowded Stazione Leopolda in Florence, and another far more pivotal point in time upstairs at the Guerlain boutique on that distant May afternoon on a sofa, when a smiling sales assistant, well used to gawky teenagers and their stylish mothers, proffered a storied perfume and I found a kind of self-definition in a bottle I could never have even hoped to imagine.

Passport à Paris is all of that, all of history and heritage and heresy, and yet… it is also, just like its inspirations, entirely itself and entirely new. Fougère Royale can never be what it once was and Jicky today is a wan, thin ghost of its former voluptuously curvy, decadent self.

Tant pis. I can honestly say I no longer care so long as beauty such as this exists.

I could walk you through its evolution, from the citrus song of its opening to its herbal, emerald-green, floral-tinged heart and on to a far drydown many hours later that hints of amber glints in the firelight embracing patchouli, ambergris and civet. I could tell you all of these are both apparent and discernible and yet… not. For here it’s not the olfactory words or notes themselves that matter so much as it is the overall feel and mood they emanate.

If ever a perfume somehow managed to convey the sinuous twists and turns of Art Nouveau, evoking an age of aesthetes and voluptuaries and a perpetual revolution and evolution of ideas, of art, of the art of perfume… it would be this one. That it manages, like all of Dawn’s historically inspired perfumes to appear both timeless and brand-new is a marvel.

I’ve read that some people have complained that DSH perfumes are ephemeral, transparent, discreet and fleeting. Not Passport à Paris. I have slept with it, woken up with it, worn it and adored it over twelve hours after applying it.

As a perfume writer, it happens I encounter a perfume so good, I catch myself thinking that if I don’t own it, I shall die of heartbreak and despair. More often than not, that fit of acquisition passes.

Not this time and not this one. Passport à Paris will be the very first perfume I buy next.

Because in attempting to breathe the past to life, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz somehow managed to evoke a perfect future unfurling like the fern above and a past that imagined the future as perfect.

If I don’t own such beauty, I shall die of heartbreak and despair.

Passport à Paris is available as an eau de parfum and as parfum directly from the DSH perfumes’ site.

Notes: Lemon, bergamot, lavender, palisander rosewood, mandarin orange, jasmine, Bulgarian rose, orris, clover, Australian sandalwood, amber, vanilla, coumarin, ambergris, Indian patchouli and civet.

Disclosure: A sample of Passport à Paris was provided by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for review. I’m not worthy.

Also a huge and grateful thank you to the very dear friend who sent me a sample of vintage Jicky parfum.