(Image Alain Delon, le Samourai)
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 accord tighter: 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 very 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. Grey Flannel started an escalating use of the material that Azzaro pour Homme, Drakkar Noir and Cool Water eventually took to greater extremes.
Grey Flannel is an appealing use of the material, which lends flinty and aquatic qualities to the underlying fougère accord. In Grey Flannel it creates a scent of wet steel that gives a directness to the fragrance. Grey Flannel balanced the coolness with a mossy base, allowing Grey Flannel to be heady and expansive without becoming egregious. 1978’s Azzaro pour Homme was the aromatic fougère that knocked knocked Grey Flannel from its perch as king-of-the-hill aromatic fougère. The bigger-is-better approach of Azzaro highlights the appeal of Grey Flannel. Grey Flannel’s strength was its sense of conviction. It was a remarkably straightforward perfume. It had no frills or gracenotes. It felt confident. By comparison, the Azzaro fougère seemed Machiavellian in its complexity. It was 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, Grey Flannel 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 herbal tone had its roots in the 1960s trend for herbal notes and ‘outdoorsy’ masculines. Grey Flannel, released only two years later had a far 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 was an exaggeration of the signature metallic chill that Grey Flannel had become known for, but 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 an overdose of violet leaf. The modern version scent reads as crisp and immaculate; 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.