digging (into) vintage: Jean-Paul Guerlain’s masculine fragrances

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1961. Vetiver After working with his grandfather on the 1955 perfume Ode, the pressure was on Jean-Paul Guerlain to bring the family brand safely into the latter half of the 20th century. Succeeding Jacques Guerlain, commonly cited as one of the greatest perfumers in history, must have been daunting, but Jean-Paul came out of the gate with what proved to be the most successful masculine in the Guerlain roster. Vetiver was a remarkable first perfume for a young perfumer. It was a crisp, dry woody perfume that balanced an expansive gin-and-tonic opening and a mossy, forest floor drydown. Jean-Paul sidestepped the Guerlain tradition of byzantine orientals and dandyish masculines. Guerlain had nothing like Vetiver in its line-up and I imagine traditionalists within the house might have looked askance at the choice. Jean-Paul proved his point by creating a pristine, perfectly balanced entry into the new trend of masculine fragrances built on the material. His Vetiver came 2 years after the fragrance that launched the trend, Givenchy’s Vetyver. Guerlain outpaced Givenchy to become the reference vetiver fragrance for a generation of masculine vetivers followed.

1965. Habit Rouge. Not content to repeat the blueprint of his first success, Jean-Paul’s sophomore fragrance showed his versatility. Vetiver’s dry wood was a new style for Guerlain, but Habit Rouge built on Guerlain’s history of oriental perfumes, especially Shalimar. If the pressure on Jean-Paul had been high with his first perfume, his second masculine for the house would prove to be even trickier. Guerlain’s approach to the oriental had been proven successful over the previous 75 years, and following the house style, Habit Rouge had a shining citrus topnote, a powdery heart and a resinous base with a touch of leather.

The story goes that the Guerlain elders disapproved of his perfume. They didn’t think it was bad. Worse still, they thought it was inappropriate. Despite a history of flouncy masculines like Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur, the powers-that-be found a sweet, powdery oriental controversial. Crossing the gender line, and lavishly, in a conservative, traditional house has consequences. It was the mid ‘60s—change was in the air and Guerlain’s elder generations weren’t having it. Jean-Paul was made to launch Habit Rouge Dry immediately on the heals of the original, a sort of penance, a retraction of Habit Rouge’s intimation of debauchery and hedonism.

But the joke was on everybody but Jean-Paul. For those who doubted that a ‘feminine’ masculine would never find an audience, Habit Rouge gained momentum, eventually entering the Guerlain canon.

1974. L’Eau de Guerlain. Each of the perfumers of the Guerlain family had created an Eau de Cologne. Jean Paul’s was fairly traditional version of the fundamental EdC formula. The citric topnotes were underlined by a cool green herbal quality that extended the requisite fresh topnotes of an Eau de Cologne into the heart. The base added moss to the expected musks, though l’Eau was as fleeting as any other Cologne. It was a balanced, solid Cologne, a great fit with the Eaux of his Guerlain predecessors (Impériale, du Coq, and Fleurs de Cedrat).

The Guerlain Eaux de Cologne all reveal the conservative side of the house and favor quality over innovation. Jean-Paul’s is no exception. Vetiver and Habit Rouge might have fueled fantasies of Jean Paul as an enfant terrible. Jean Paul’s l’Eau de Guerlain dashed them. It was simply an excellent Eau de Cologne. No feathers ruffled.

1985. Derby. Guerlain has a remarkable history of chypres. Mitsouko might have been an idea that Jacques Guerlain cribbed from François Coty, but once Jacques took the idea, he refined it and arguably perfected it. Mitsouko lead to Djedi, Sous le Vent and Vol de Nuit. Jacques’s chypre perfumes paved the way for Jean-Paul’s Chant d’Aromes and Parure. Derby was his masculine chypre.

Masculine chypres weren’t as common as the feminine versions and as a masculine genre, the chypre takes a back seat to the fougère. Still, masculine chypres are historically significant. They were principally citric chypres, eg. Rochas Moustache, Chanel pour Homme, Givenchy Monsieur, but by the ‘60s-‘70s leathery chypres like Aramis, Yatagan and Halston Z14 became popular. Derby was a leather chypre built around a woody/smoky core. Jean-Paul was celebrated for his masculine perfumes and he knew the workings of the chypre accord intimately. Derby was a logical perfume for Jean-Paul and many consider it his greatest. It has the dramatic sweep of the greatest feral feminine chypres like Miss Dior and Scherrer de Scherrer, but by modulating bitter spices and smoky woody tones, it also reads as masculine in the vernacular of the mid-‘80s.

1992. Jean-Paul took another whack at creating the masculine Shalimar with Heritage. This time, though, he butched it up. Habit Rouge had nearly been his undoing, and Jean-Paul deserves credit for sticking to his guns and waiting until public acclaim made Habit Rouge the archetype it has become. With Heritage he took another risk. The masculine oriental was still an uphill swim for many men, and Heritage was a ginormous Phantom of the Opera theater-organ of an oriental. It was a viscous, aromatic, vanillic, resinous perfume bolstered by thunderous woody-ambers that filled every open space in the composition. Depending on your preferences, Heritage was either harmonious or smothering.

1994. Enter, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE. LVMH took control of Guerlain, a brand it had had partial ownership in since 1987.

“Our business model is anchored in a long term vision that builds on the heritage of our Houses and stimulates creativity and excellence. This model drives the success of our Group and ensures its promising future.”

Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH. Incidentally, also the richest man in France.

Anchored, long-term, heritage. Creativity, success, future. Cool.

1998. Coriolan, Jean-Paul’s first post-LVMH masculine, was another chypre, but it was nothing like the smoky, leathery Derby. It was a shiny, metallic chypre with a frosty edge. It had an aromatic herbal underpinning that could make it look like a fougère if you saw it out of the corner of your eye. Unfortunately, Coriolan is the lost Guerlain.

All of the five masculine perfumes that Jean-Paul composed pre-LVMH are still in production. Coriolan lives on, but in a sort of witness-protection program. It was discontinued almost as quickly as it was released in 1998, but the first of the its alter-egos, Chamade pour Homme, was released in 1999. 2007’s l’Ame d’un Héros, which Guerlain calls a “re-edited” Coriolan is a classic example of another post-LVMH trend: deception and repackaging. Guerlain have developed a policy of pulling one of their mainstream perfumes, often one panned by critics, and then releasing it as a part of one of the various exclusive lines at a serious markup. l’Ame d’un Héros cost 4-5 times as much as the market failure on which it is based.

It’s possible that Guerlain aimed at a target and missed—not a lot of men were looking for a pretty chypre—but clearly Guerlain believed in the basic composition, even if they need to resort to subterfuge to get people to wear it. I should be clear. I’m skeptical—-actually I’m derisive—of  Guerlain’s cynical shell game but the perfume itself was a sensational. It was a beautiful and inventive chypre launched at a time when the genre was on the chopping block. IFRA had been swinging its axe at the chypre for years by 1998 and it was common knowledge within the biz that further restrictions were in the wind. Even if Coriolan had been a business success, there would have been land mines ahead.

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Jean Paul’s career is marked by the LVMH takeover. His pre-LVMH perfumes were all icons of masculine perfumery. Before the niche era, this put Guerlain at the top of the heap of sophisticated perfume houses. JP’s first perfume post-LVMH was a feminine, the critically-panned Champs Elysée. Over the years it’s come to represent a faulty marketing approach that tried to make Guerlain appear “young” and “modern”. After the confused Champs Elysée JP Guerlain took a few new approaches.

1) Flankers and misdirection: the Vetivers, the Habits Rouges and the Coriolans. JP’s most famous masculines were Vetiver and Habit Rouge. The brand flanked both perfumes in an attempt to make them more conventional, more ‘mass-market.’ Jean-Paul penned all the Vetivers, and a few of the Habits Rouges, but he was present at Guerlain when all the flankers (except Habit Rouge Dress Code) were launched. Coriolan didn’t so much flank as play hot-potato with an unsuccessful perfume, hoping that high-end demographic would find it appealing despite the lack of commercial success of Coriolan.

The flanker Vetiver pour Elle was a surprise hit that Guerlain managed by plucking the fragrance from its ridiculously inaccessible airport line, quadrupling its price and dropping it into the nearly-as-inaccessible Les Parisiennes line. After the feminine version, Vetiver received the standard masculine three-part flanker tactic: Frozen (2004), Extreme (2006) and Sport (2006). Frozen (also labeled Vetiver Eau Glacée) and Extreme were interesting over-dose styled flankers. Extreme wasn’t any more extreme or potent than the original, but it was an interesting spin on the original built with contemporary materials that gave it a less ‘vintage’ vibe. Frozen was a lovely, slightly trashy mentholated strip-down of the original. Even if the flanking tactic (Ice, Frozen, Cool, Chill, Glacée…) was suspect, the perfume was enjoyable.

Habit Rouge received an equally uninventive, but more elaborate strategy. In addition to Legère (2005), Sport (2009), Extrait (2009), l’Eau (2011), Dress Code (2015), Guerlain created nearly a dozen other versions after the 2003 comprehensive reformulation of Habit Rouge. With fancy additions to the Habit Rouge nomenclature (Voyage, Rider and Taillé sur Mesure) and decorated version of the standard bottle it’s uncertain if Guerlain was attempting to deceive the public. All of these elaborate versions held the standard juice, either the edt or the edp.

After the tepid public reception of Coriolan Guerlain re-released the perfume with minor (if any) tweaks to the composition. Chamade pour Homme combined the name of a classic and the formula of a flop. L’Ame d’un Heros put a new name to the same basic formula. Both were released as a part of the up-priced Les Parisiens line.

2) The low end: populism and the Aqua Allegorias. The Aqua Allegorias have become a parade of simple tutti-frutti scents released with an agonizing frequency but they started with Jean Paul. Composed alone or with Mathilde Laurent, the early Aqua Allegorias were simple but distinctive eaux de toilette that picked up where the classic Eau de Cologne left off. The line is priced at the low-end of the brand, but the versions Jean-Paul worked on were unadorned and coherent.

3) The high end: Exclusive perfumes that emulated the independent model. 2010’s Arsène Lupin Dandy and Voyou were JP’s attempt to create a high-end masculine line. Together with a reformulated Derby (which had been discontinued years earlier), Chamade pour Homme and l’Ame d’un Héros, Les Parisiens line became the flagship of Guerlain’s masculine fragrances the first of a confusing number of prestige perfume lines the house would eventually launch.

My focus here has been to look at Jean-Paul Guerlain’s masculine perfumes for Guerlain before and after LVMH. It’s only a slice of Jean-Paul’s story, but it seems important to point out two developments. Jean-Paul continued to make gobs of perfumes for Guerlain, the bulk of which were Aqua Allegorias. He didn’t recede gradually into the background of Guerlain. He flamed out. He was terminated from the company after: 1) Making racist remarks. 2) Undergoing a very public trial for point 1, and narrowly avoiding incarceration. 3) Repeatedly discussing in interviews why he didn’t think there was anything wrong with point 1. The second development is that after being handed his hat by the brand his family owned outright for over 150 years, at 80, Jean-Paul partnered with a luxury perfume startup to create a new line of perfumes. It will be interesting to follow the results, both of the perfumes and Jean-Paul’s management of his new public image.

 

(digging into vintage)

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