Guerlain Idylle, 2009

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Perfumer Thierry Wasser

Around the time Idylle was launched the chypre perfume was considered to be in the final stages of death throes. The word chypre was still getting thrown around a good bit but it was accompanied by a series of hair-splitting modifiers. Modern chypres, neo-chypres, pink chypres, nouveaux chypres. Virtual chypres. If you really want to see the term tortured, though, look no further than ‘nu-chypre’. Like all the above expressions, it means “not a chypre, but…”

Nu-chypres were a hodge-podge of styles that either tried to emulate the forest floor vibe of the traditional chypre without the requisite dose of moss (Annick Goutal Mon Parfum Chéri, Parfums MCDLMNOP Chypre Palatin, le Labo Ylang 49) or create an ‘alternative  chypre.’ One of the alternatives was a new style of musky florals that was paraded around as a stand-in for the dying breed of truly mossy chypres. They were powered by white musks and preternaturally clean wood materials. The trend produced some interesting perfumes like Patou Enjoy, the stellar first iteration of Miss Dior Cherie and the discontinued Ralph Lauren Pure Turquoise. The most prominent examples of the style were Narciso for Her and Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely.

For his first solo pillar fragrance for Guerlain Wasser made certain by design that his perfume would be compared outside of the confines of the brand, and he was smart to do so. Guerlain’s traditional lineup was starting to take on a vaguely rictus, Dorian Gray look and entering the house’s slow-moving orbit wouldn’t give him the foothold he needed to win over a new, young demographic.

Instead, Wasser looked to the broader marketplace. Idylle followed on the heels of both Narciso for Her and Lovely, riffing on their white musky patchouli lollipop style. He took their basic pattern and improved on it, a classic Guerlain trick. * Likening the new breed of Guerlain perfumes to the icons, like comparing Insolence to l’Heure Bleue, might be an interesting premise for a marque that values its legacy but it doesn’t necessarily bring new customers to the brand. It’s comparison to perfumes outside the brand that leads to cross-shopping, and if Wasser could woo even a fraction of the young female demographic that might have been considering Narciso or Lovely he could deliver what Guerlain desperately wanted: fresh blood.

Taking a known concept and improving on it is a proven, successful business and artistic tactic. Looking to two perfumes that in retrospect were simply part of an ongoing drift toward perfumes built around white musks and dry-cleaned new woody materials, Wasser simply identified market trends and manipulated them to suit his purposes. Ironically, by walking away from the House of Guerlain’s looming sensibility he stepped into Jacques Guerlain’s shoes. Idylle improved on Narciso just as Shalimar had on Emeraude. Also, oddly, Narciso and Lovely have the same chicken/egg dilemma as the Coty and Guerlain perfumes. Narciso launched first in 2003, with Lovely following in 2005. The two perfumes are remarkably similar—to the point of having a common flaw. Once they move beyond the musk-slickened floral sheen of their topnotes they taper off into viscous, muffled basenotes.

Idylle leads with an explosive rose that starts citric then sweetens. The trick is that it never loses the touch of green that keeps it from sliding into a musky white-out. The shellac scent of lily-of-the-valley has similar dynamics to the glassy rose and reinforces the solidity of the composition. Idylle balances sweetness with just enough astringency to keep the rose crisp and shimmering from start to finish. The eau de toilette is sharper and slightly rougher than the eau de parfum and I’d swear I can hear a faint echo of Nahema’s frenetic rose in the topnotes.

Idylle is more delicately balanced than either Narciso or Lovely. The florals are clearer and the fruit notes delineate the sweetness rather than blur it. If Wasser did in fact look to either of the two perfumes while making Idylle, he seems to have identified the defect of their shared musky woody accord and fixed it. There’s something strategic about Wasser’s improvements: Declot the murky base and don’t  fall into the white (mus)k-hole. Add better lighting to the topnotes. It’s a tactical renovation but an effective one. Idylle is both more to the point and more nuanced, making Narciso and Lovely seem blocky and disproportionate by comparison.

Guerlain are generous with the term chypre and implicity ask us to consider Idylle a ‘floral chypre’ a term that I tend to reserve for vintage Miss Dior, Scherrer de Scherrer, Lauder Private Collection and the like. So, chypre or not? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t smell like one. There’s no inkiness, no smokiness. No tell-tale interplay of the resinous facets of bergamot and moss. Idylle is too polished, too evenly lit to imitate a chypre and even if it were able to reproduce the mossy, ambery scent of a chypre it doesn’t capture the synergy. It doesn’t follow the pyramid structure that characterizes the genre, instead skating a meandering line from start to finish. This generation of white-musky fragrances, in what would become a signature of Wasser’s perfumes, have a cute, pillowy finish no real chypre would be caught dead in.

Where Idylle fails to live up to the chypre standard is that, despite some innovative olfactory geometry, it lacks a chypre’s character. Chypre perfumes had a mystery to the passer-by and the wearer alike. Women who wore Cabochard and Diorella as their signature perfumes still found nuances and surprises after years of wear. Idylle, on the other hand, doesn’t unfold over time. Wear it once and you get it. It’s a different notion of beauty, really. Chypres were beautiful on a spectrum from gorgeous to fucking ravishing. By comparison Idylle settles for a Hello Kitty level of prettiness. The hazard of a strategically designed perfume is that it will simply perform as designed and here is where Idylle falls down as a chypre. It is the sum of its parts. No less, but unfortunately no more


* Common knowledge: A number of Guerlain’s early 20th century perfumes bore striking resemblances to specific perfumes by François Coty. l’Origan/l’Heure Bleue, Chypre/Mitsouko, Emeraude/Shalimar. The question of whether Jacques was a copy-cat or a clever businessman has been brought up often. What if there were more to it? (Caveat. Alternative facts upcoming.) Despite Coty’s perfumes preceding Guerlain’s they were created in the same general milieu and chased the same market. It’s possible that Guerlain simply had a slower process the Coty. Jacques had undergone the painstaking family training/mentoring process whereas Coty was largely self taught and wasn’t slowed down by tradition. Perhaps François and Jacques in point of fact mirrored each other. Perhaps both were riffs on perfume styles of the day that we know nothing about. Just a thought.


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