Perfumer André Fomentin.
Forthright, stark accords have a broad legibility that I find appealing. Fundamental accords keep some degree of some degree of virtuosity even when the notes harmonize. The best potential for synergy is when different elements are connected by a couple of associative links, as in the seemingly Kevin Baconish degrees between bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum in a chypre. The fougère is an even tighter accord: lavender and coumarin. When you consider that most lavenders contain a high percentage of coumarin, the fougère accord starts to seem like the ouroboros of perfumery. I understand why Michael Edwards placed the fougère at the center of his fragrance wheel for so long.
Grey Flannel is a brilliant fragrance that might have traded some degree of acclaim for ubiquity. Time has passed and the revival is calling. It’s time to reconsider Grey Flannel.
Grey Flannel was a novel fougère in 1975. It paired a sibilant violet leaf to the expected lavender and gave the fougère a new shape. The synergy of the violet leaf/lavender pairing kept the soapiness of the genre but severed all associations with ‘barbershop’ fougères. The oily fougères of the middle of the century read as overly conservative to the nose of the 1970s and Grey Flannel signalled a trend away from sweet musky fougères to shiny, multifaceted aromatic fougères. 1973’s Paco Rabanne pour Homme was apparently an early adopter of the use of dihydromyrcenol, which gave fougères a cool, liquid quality that made them fresher and less nostalgic than their predecessors from the 1950s and ’60s. Paco might have preceded Grey Flannel, but Grey Flannel signalled an escalation that Azzaro pour Homme, Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir and Davidoff Cool Water eventually took to greater extremes.
Grey Flannel relies on the material to lend a flinty, wet quality to the underlying fougère accord. In Grey Flannel it creates the scent of wet steel that gives a directness to the fragrance. Grey Flannel balanced coolness with a mossy base, allowing Grey Flannel to be heady and expansive without becoming egregious. 1978’s Azzaro pour Homme knocked Grey Flannel from its perch as king-of-the-hill aromatic fougère. The bigger-is-better approach of Azzaro highlights Grey Flannel’s applealing sense of conviction. It was a remarkably straightforward perfume. It had no frills or gracenotes and felt effortless and confident. By comparison, the Azzaro fougère seemed Machiavellian in its complexity. It was a glorious modern dandy of a perfume and deserved its acclaim, but I find Grey Flannel’s comparative simplicity more satisfying. It’s a testament to the fougère accord that aromatic fougères had such an expressive range. Paco in ’73, GF in ’75 and Azzaro in ’78. In a five year period the new sub-genre of fougère exploded and changed the face of masculine perfumery.
Grey Flannel is the link between Paco Rabanne pour Homme and the 1988 game-changer Cool Water. All three are based on a dihydromyrcenol/fougère accord, but each takes a different tack. Paco’s groovy botanical tone had its roots in a growing ’70s trend for herbal notes and ‘outdoorsy’ masculines. Grey Flannel, released only two years later had a much more urban, formal feel. It suited the growing trend for buttoned up men’s styling—the GQ effect. Cool Water took overdosage to a new plateau and quantity became quality. Stylistically, Cool Water exaggerated the signature metallic chill of Grey Flannel. By taking that last step over the line, Cool Water broke from its predecessors and became someting new. The aromatic fougère gave way to the aquatic fougère.
Gray Flannel has survived reformulation by conceding. Rather than water down its formula drip by drip as its constituent materials grew more limited by the turning of IFRA’s screw, Grey Flannel threw in the towel on the fougère genre entirely. Eschewing moss and gobs of lavender/coumarin, Grey Flannel became a woody-citric fragrance with overdoses of petitgrain and violet leaf. The modern version reads as crisp and immaculate and it would make an ideal alternative to the sporty–fresh wing of the men’s perfume market. But you have to like the urinal puck scent of violet leaf materials or you’ll never love the contemporary Grey Flannel. In giving up the fight, Grey Flannel did better than most of its cohort. Today Paco smells like a cleaning product and Drakkar Noir just smells botched. Grey Flannel (for about $12 for a 125 ml bottle) doesn’t smell like its first incarnation, but it does smell fantastic.
(image, Alain Delon in le Samouraï)