The fougère has been a yardstick of masculine perfumery since Houbigant released Fougère Royale in 1882. It is a slow moving genre that has sauntered from decade to decade with periodic touchups. The principle accord of lavender and coumarin can support a wide range of alterations. With a few compositional tweeks fougères have ranged from mossy or aromatic to oriental and aquatic hybrids.
The genre was created by the French, idolized by the British and democratized by Americans. Though Canoe was composed in the 1930s (actual release dates vary) in France, it came to epitomize a populist American style of a fragrance. Until the mossy fougères of the 1960s and aromatic fougères of the 1970s, oily-powdery musky lavenders were the masculine paradigm. The accord was ubiquitous, scenting a range of men’s grooming products, becoming the scent of the masculine ‘safe zone’: the barbershop. (Paradoxically, a heliotrope-inflected version of this accord scented the baby powder of the era as well. Was the American man infantilized or were babies inculcated into the culture of masculinity?) Canoe’s vanillic musk bears only a passing resemblance to the fougères of the present. On the other hand, it has much in common with sweet, powdery musks like Helmut Lang edp/edc, le Labo Labdanum 18, Kiehls Musk no 1 and even S-Perfumes S-ex.
Compared to previous fougères Canoe dialed down aromatics and woods and emphasized musky vanillic tones, making it as much an oriental as a fougère. A tart geranium accent steers the perfume away from custard, just as Jicky’s dusting of culinary herbs does. Canoe ventures so far from ‘pastry’ vanilla that it lands in the infamous ‘plastic doll head’ territory. To the modern nose, geranium gives Canoe a dated feel, but it also cuts the softness and prevents a marshmallow effect. By drydown geranium loses its sticky, green sharpness. What remains is a lingering tartness and a slight rosy hue.
Jean Carles composed Canoe as well as its 1955 sibling Dana Ambush, a fougère marketed to women. The two were the sold as masculine and feminine bookends, though they are enough alike that the gender assignments seem arbitrary. Perhaps Carles took inspiration from Guerlain Jicky, which was launched as a masculine fragrance but became unisex by popular acclamation.
Since Paul Parquet’s Houbigant Fougère Royale, each generation has had a version of the genre. There is an unbroken line of fougères nearly 150 long and no other perfume style has the old boy’s historical momentum. Penhaligon’s and Yardley preceded Canoe, which paved the way for Brut, British Sterling and Grey Flannel. Canoe is still produced, but lacks the roundness of earlier formulations. Fortunately, Canoe has been in production for so many years that large quantities are available on the cheap at ebay. The durable vintage musks and high alcohol content (eau de cologne concentration) preserve older bottles very well.
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