– 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.
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