Images lifted from Thomas Allen.
The start: Grès Cabochard, 1959.
Expectation works against Grès Cabochard, poor dear. Many compare it in its current form to a vintage model. I’ve never smelled vintage Cabochard, so that expectation isn’t an issue. Cabochard is the reference leather chypre of the mid-20th century. It was popular, critically acclaimed and directly influenced the decades of chypres that followed it.
My expectation, and I’ll own it, comes from Cabochard’s family resemblance to Aramis by Aramis and therefore to Estée Lauder’s Azurée. I have versions of Aramis and Azurée bought within the last five years—ostensibly current issue. They were all created by perfumer Bernard Chant and share the same compositional DNA as Cabochard. They are spectacular and can be compared head to head with any other leather chypres, whether niche or designer. Cabochard, sadly, cannot.
The current Cabochard is like a grainy, blurry photo of either Aramis or Azurée. I can see that the topnotes are meant to capture the same strong, dry bitterness as found in either of the other two, but it comes off as both shrill and thin at the same time. And it falls apart so quickly! Within five minutes it becomes clear that Cabochard won’t venture down either the leather or chypre paths, instead becoming a disorganized but harsh dry woody fragrance.
I won’t flog a dead horse. I’ll just say that Aramis proves that Cabochard need not be so bad. Reformulation has always occurred in perfumery. (So has the production of flankers, by the way. Aramis and Azurée demonstrate that a flanker need not be necessarily bad.) This current quandry, though, with restrictions on essential materials and the meanness of the companies ordering the reformulation, seems to be particular to our time.
You’ve seen The Walking Dead? Cabochard is effectively a zombie, dead but still lurching among us. The name is the same, the bottle is a knock-off of the original, the juice is a cheap, cynical reformulation. Cheap, since the budget for making it cannot have been generous. Cynical, as it rides on the longstanding reputation of both the vintage perfume and the perfumer, but doesn’t offer either quality or creativity in the reformulation.
What’s good for the goose… Aramis by Aramis, 1966.
Aramis is one reason among many that I love Estée Lauder, parent company of the Aramis line. It is a sensational, stark leather chypre that is easily available available and costs less than any other perfume available at the department store perfume counter. Vis a vis Cabochard, Aramis is a classic variations on a theme. Small differences occur as notes recede or come forward, and despite the large common ground between them, each perfume stands on its own. Aramis has surely been reformulated over time, but still demonstrates surprisingly good form.
I’ve seen a number of lists of notes, but to my nose Aramis is a bergamot, patchouli and moss blast. It has a hint of the herbal tone that Chant’s Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900 would make famous in the next decade. Aramis and the current Cabochard have a similar shape, and the one could easily be taken for the other in passing, but only in passing. Aramis is sharper, has a cooler herbal tone (clove, bay, pepper) and an earthier drydown. It keeps its leathery bite from top to drydown, where Cabochard falls to pieces and reeks of thoughtless reformulation.
The third time’s the charm: Estée Lauder Azurée, 1969.
Chypres in general and leather chypres more specifically seem to be enormously popular perfume genres among perfume fans. Their complexities and balances of starkness and richness make them make them habit-forming for fumies. Azurée is a perfect fit for this group. Estée Lauder keep their older fragrances in good trim, and deserve kudos for doing so. If you want to experience the good old, bad old swaggering fragrances of the mid 20th century, just visit a well stocked Lauder counter. Aramis and Azurée fit well in the EL feminine-masculine tradition of Aliage–Devin, Cinnabar–JHL, Aromatic Elixir–Aramis 900.
Azurée really matches the description of the classic chypres—filling a room, conjuring a presence, chewing up the scenery. It has the bitterness of a hard, green chypre; the dryness of the stark leathers; the complexity of an era that had little legal restriction on use of materials. It’s ridiculous then to see Azurée described in Lauder press as “light” and a “woody citrus” as if we were talking about a specter-like 90s fragrance. It is stark to the point of harsh, scorchingly dry, and inedible in the way strong leathers are. It is perfect.
The dilemma of the Cabochard family demonstrates well two points: flankers are not necessarily bad and reformulation need not be tragic. Cabochard/Aramis/Azurée could be seen as the prototypes for Serge Lutnes’s Feminité du Bois/Bois de Violette/Bois et Fruit. Where badly done flankers flood the market with dreck, variation on a well-considered theme offers the buyer options. As for reformulation, the uphill grade is a little greater. Reformulation occurs when materials become unavailable or when cost drives the decision. Regardless of the motivation, the predicament is the same for the perfumer.
Grès have dropped the ball. Estée Lauder have risen to the challenge.