Chanel Cuir de Russie, 1924 (2007)

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(Image lifted from Katerina Plotnikova)

Perfumer Ernest Beaux. 1924. Reformulation, Jacques Polge. 2007.

Most of what has been written on classical perfumery falls into three categories: the description, the tribute and the complaint, also known as anger passing for nostalgia.  

Take Chanel no 5:

• The description: Soapy. Bubbly. Old Lady perfume. Flowery. Feminine.  

• The tribute: The greatest perfume ever made. The ultimate fashion accessory of the 20th century. The perfume that launched thousand ships. 

• The complaint can be sophisticated or simplistic, but the meaning is the same: something I am entitled to has been taken away from me and I’m bitter. Blame political correctness for taking animal products off the perfumers palate, blame the governmental nannies for taking away nitro musks. Wherever I point the finger, though, I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to wear this anymore.

Cuir de Russe is a seminal work from one of the acknowledged founders of contemporary perfumery, Ernest Beaux. Describing it, idolizing it or bitching about its current state doesn’t seem sufficient.

So what can I say about it? It is one of the few remaining examples of the sub genre after which it was named. The Russian leathers were defined by their specific combination of the hard and the soft. Rough leather notes, typically created with great helpings of birch tar, are balanced by dry floral notes. They combined the rugged and the refined and played on the Franco-Russian mystique of the early 20th century. They conveyed the sensibility of an era where sophistication was not defined by effete finery, but by an almost swashbuckling pursuit of ‘the finer things’. 

Does Chanel’s Cuir de Russie meet these expectations? Tough to say.  Perfume’s capacity to evoke a broad sensibility is a function of many factors, from accessibility and social expectation to marketing, cost and personal habit. The Russian Leathers’ connotation of class and privilege was likely a smoke-and-mirrors game at the start of the 20th Century. In the second decade of the 21st it is virtually mythology, which Chanel maintain with their heritage pillars: No 5, Cuir de Russie and Bois des Isles.

Cuir de Russie must meet a two-part goal for Chanel. It must remain coherent with the image of Chanel’s history yet be desirable to the buyer who doesn’t know or care that the perfume has a history. This is the precipice where many vintage perfumes die. They are reformulated, whether due to materials or strategy, and they lose the buyers. Caron’s strategy has been to  reformulate their heritage products drastically (eg. Narcisse Noir). Vintage lovers protest that their favorite perfumes have been gutted and new younger buyers have little interest in ‘old lady perfumes.’ Taking a different tack, Guerlain reissued Vega as true to its original form as possible. Buyers who didn’t care about its historical significance didn’t buy it and it has been discontinued.  

Caron is the cautionary tale and Chanel have paid close attention. Cuir de Russie ‘ain’t what she used to be,’ but is an exceptional perfume that is precicely calibrated for 2015. The reference to the past is apparent but the perfume isn’t nostalgic in the least. Neither is it adorned with olfactory signifiers like fruit notes, lingering woody ambers or cotton candy that that would suggest a cynical attempt to trick a younger demographic. The juxtaposition of leather with flowers is the idea at the heart of both the vintage and the current formulations of Cuir de Russie. The current version focusses on the same concepts that the original did rather than try to recreate it.  In emphasizing evolution and continuity Chanel have made the current Cuir de Russie what it always was: a reference point and a standard against which other perfumes are measured.

An excellent leather perfume has been evidence of quality and distinction for niche and classic houses. Robert Piguet are ‘known’ for Bandit, as are Heeley for Cuir Pleine Fleur and Balmain formerly were for Jolie Madame. Cuir de Russie might not be a best-seller for Chanel, but it is critical to their image and their perfume portfolio.  Jacques Polge, who oversees the maintenance of the line and is responsible for its current composition, gets high marks for the deliberation and subtlety that make the contemporary Cuir de Russie an exceptional perfume. 

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