The reformulation debate gets batted back and forth all the time but never lands with a solid enough thud to feel definitive. At this stage in the game, after condemnations of the state of the genre were met with demands for evidence of the claim, the discussion is stuck. It goes nowhere because it focuses on materials. The debate looks for empirical proof—a change in a percentage or a shift of a decimal point—to determine state of the chypre. But without verifiable evidence the argument reaches its limits quickly and predictably. Perfume producers don’t share the specifics of their compositions, especially not data that would reveal the details of reformulation.
But here’s the kicker: even if they did, so what? The ‘measure’ of the chypre, for lack of a better word, is not in the percentage of oakmoss, it’s in the sweep of the experience of wearing one. I don’t need to be trained in composing perfumes to understand them any more than I need to know how to sculpt in order to drive a car. Should being a perfume aficionado be any different than being a fan of other media? I discuss visual arts with friends, acquaintances and professionals. Am I trained in painting? Christ, I can barely draw a smiley face without having to trace it. But it doesn’t matter a whit that I can’t draw nor that I have no interest in learning to. No other art form asks that you be a practitioner in order to participate? Why should perfume?
Is composition important? Of course, in fact it’s critical. But it’s not my concern. How am I to know about the presence/absence and history of materials? I’ll leave that to the producers of materials and the artists who make perfume.
Dior Diorama, 1948. Edmond Roudnitska. Nina Ricci Deci Delà, 1994. Jean Guichard.
Fruity chypres have a particular history and it’s impossible not to mention Edmond Roudnitska. He might be remembered for tending attentively to muguet beds, but his true botanical inspiration was rotting fruit. His chypres were build on twilight fruit accords that ranged from succulence to pure rot. They have the resonance and dimension that contemporary materials struggle to emulate. Rouditska would have had access to all the materials no longer widely employed—nitro musks, castoreum, civet, raw bergamot and all the other toxic goodies—and I assume he put them to good use. The perfumes managed to be believable— you could really distinguish plum from melon—but they were suggestive. Roudnitska’s fruit were a sort of moral barometer.
Roudnitska composed Femme, his seminal chypre, during the German occupation of France. It combined ripe fruit, heady florals and musks in a curvacious, seductive mix. Making such a lascivious perfume under these circumstances was an admirable act of defiance. Femme is an early example of a particular talent of Roudnitska’s to tie the ripeness of fruit to libido. Femme was salacious, blatant. Diorama was quite similar in shape to Femme but it was hotter. It was muskier, riskier, sleazier. Roudnitska’s Diorella, released about 30 years after Femme, is often cited as the consummate carnal fruity chypre. Sure, Diorella’s sweaty melon note might have implied the occasional afternoon assignation but it was coy in comparison to Diorama. Diorama was obscene. It seems at odds with the Christian Dior’s throwback, corseted New Look from the year before Diorama was released, but worn today, with perhaps fewer social inhibitions to contain it, vintage Diorama’s shamelessness isn’t so much blatant as demanding. Wear Diorella on a date. But if you’re cruising the bathhouse for an anonymous fuck, give vintage Diorama a spin.
The chypre has survived previous material restrictions, notably animal sourced materials and nitro musks. So why is it in such grim shape these days? Was oakmoss the defining ingredient in the recipe or just the last straw? Compositionally, decreasing percentages of oakmoss, bergamot and other materials are the likely culprits in the demise of the chypre. But tracing the path of the fruity chypre’s transformation reveals an interesting subjective pattern as well. Follow the fruity chypre over the past 20 years or so and you’ll notice that it grew increasingly less sexy. Older models like Roudnitska’s lost thrust over the course of reformulations and new perfumes were simply less tempting than their predecessors.
Over time, Femme grew brighter and less provocative. An overdose of cumin in place of animalics gives the current version an inauthentic appearance. Diorella opted for freshness over sultriness and became a sort of concentrated Eau de Cologne. Diorama was reinvented (“les Créations de Dior”) as a tame spiced floral. Some fruity chypres managed to keep ahead of looming restrictions by emphasizing syrup, fruit compote or booziness. In retrospect, such tactics were short-term measures and most of these ‘newer’ chypres have been discontinued. So the question for these troubling times remains. Is the fruity chypre dead? If materials are your measure, the answer is still up in the air. If sexiness is a guide, the answer is unequivocal. Yes, of course it’s dead. Has been for a while. Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure, but they’re exceptional.
When the chypre crossed over is an open question, but Nina Ricci Deci Delà gives a clue. 1994 was still early enough in the game that Deci Delà wasn’t the last fruity chypre to be released, but it was a bellwether. It hit at about the same time as a few other latter-day fruity chypres like 1992’s Patou Sublime and 1993’s YSL Champagne/Yvresse. Even compared to Yvresse’s fruit reduction and Sublime’s buttery, ambery citrus, Deci Dela is a fruit monster. It lead with raspberry, but had enough of a peachy-apricot stone fruit vibe to tip its hat to Femme. In Roudnitska’s chypres, the fruit leads but chypre accord was the main show. In Deci Dela, a background chypre accord barely restrains the berry blast. Even though it ventured into bubble-gum territory Deci Delà was still a chypre. One step further, though, and who knows? Remove one more chypre block from this jenga tower and it would collapse into a full-on 1990s fruity floral.
It’s worth pointing out the strategy of all three of these early ’90s fruity chypres was not to avoid the fruit but dive headlong into it. Sophia Grosjman (Yvresse), Jean Kerleo (Sublime) and Jean Guichard (Deci Delà) are three of the top names in the business. They’d have been aware of the uptick in restrictions on materials that was on the horizon. The fact that they looked to a new, fruitier chypre as the future of the genre was as much a recognition of what was to come, ie. the dread Frooty Floral, as it was a return to fundamentals. All three perfumer stand in Roudnitska’s shadow.
As the chypre went away it got pulled in a few directions. Miss Dior and other woody-floral chypres shifted the emphasis toward patchouli and other basenotes in an effort to disguise decreased mossiness. It was cheap sleight of hand, misdirection. It was also largely ineffective. The nu-chypres on the Narciso/Lovely/Idylle axis were an odd marketing ploy. The strategy was a deeply unsatisfying bait-and-switch. A food version would read: ‘Want a piece of cake? Here’s a cracker. Believe me, it’s delicious.’ Perhaps saddest of all are the fruity chypres. They eventually devolved into fruity florals.
(images: top, source unknown. Kubrick, Spartacus. José Laíño, Edible Inedible. featured image Rene Gruau for Dior)