(bear, girl, porridge)
In the mid-1980s Guerlain offered a new concentration, the Parfum de Toilette. As a midway point between an Extrait and an Eau de Toilette the objective was the best of both worlds. It should have the richness of the former and the projection of the latter. The goal was to bring Guerlain’s older perfumes closer in line with a 1980s sensibility. The trend toward larger, louder perfumes in the ’80s presented Guerlain with an interesting challenge. Jicky, Mitsouko, and Shalimar weren’t exactly demure to start with and simply amping them up wasn’t enough. If the plan was to make them more appealing to the ’80s nose, the solution would need to be more than just turning up the volume by increasing the concentration.
Nahema was the first perfume in the Guerlain line to feature the Parfum de Toilette (PdT) concentration when it launched in 1979. It was a huge, fruity rose floriental, a precursor to the fruity florals that would later flood the market. The new style and the new concentration gave a strong indication of where Jean-Paul wanted to take the company in the 1980s. In the mid-’80s a few of Guerlain’s older perfumes were reformulated to the PdT concentration: Jicky, l’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar and Chamade.
All of the Parfums de Toilette were composed by Jean-Paul Guerlain and with the exception of Jicky, they were all feminine fragrances. His prior work raised some questions about how Jean-Paul would manage the brazen feminines of his predecessor Jacques Guerlain. Although his masculine fragrances (Vetiver, Habit Rouge, Derby) had a consistent and confident attitude, his track record with feminines was less persuasive. It’s not the fit and finish of the compositions that was the problem, it’s that Jean-Paul seemed to have a tin ear for gender. Or at least some of the time.
Jean-Paul Guerlain, femininity. (Oh, and race. Didn’t he have some trouble there too?)
The problem started with Chant d’Aromes, his first feminine for the brand. It was intended as a fresh-scrubbed, youthful option to the brand’s catalogue of heavyweights. But just as it’s a mistake to assume that an older person will be conservative it’s wrong to think of 1962’s Chant d’Aromes as modern just because it targeted a young client. The hushed, sweet florals and powdered light chypre base lacked heft and the cautious, buttoned-up vision of youthful femininity was drab. After Chant d’Aromes, came Chamade’s sultry sophisticate in 1969. Next to the image of the dull debutante that Chant d’Aromes brings to mind, Chamade read like Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate—complex, conflicted, sensual. Next, in 1975 Guerlain released Parure, a blank-eyed Stepford Wife of a perfume that was out of tune with the rushing social changes that defined the decade. It was a step backward from Chamade’s easy confidence. Parure was a faint-hearted, girlish chypre like Chant d’Aromes, but by the mid-’70s this sort of timidity was more regressive and brittle than it would have seemed in 1962. It was miles from the assured assertive feminines that were coming to define the state of feminine perfumery. The enormous leap from Parure to Jean-Paul’s next feminine fragrance Nahema was compensation for the apprehensiveness of some of his earlier feminines. Some would argue it was overcompensation. Good-bye prissy prig and hello drama queen. Nahema was a larger-than-life, voluptuous floriental that shared the ballsiness of Guerlain’s early feminines but was less impenetrable and more crystalline. It was a huge glitter ball of a perfume. It was Guerlain-gone-disco.
Reading through the history of Jean-Paul’s feminines give me whiplash. How was Jean-Paul prepared to manage reformulations of the most celebrated perfumes in Guerlain’s history when his feminines had been so erratic? Despite the inconsistent approach to his own feminine compositions, JP developed a coherent strategy for the Parfums de Toilette. The concentration is the same across the group, but it was hardly a one-size-fits-all approach. The reformulations emphasize different attributes of each perfume, giving Jean Paul the opportunity to take an editorial stance on the most pivotal pieces in the Guerlain archive. He tailored them to meet the fashion of the day but avoided traps of today’s flankers like overdosage or the addition of a ‘note du jour.’ The Parfums de Toilette aren’t Noir, Fraiche, Sporty, Light or Extreme. As it turns out, they in fact are the best off both worlds. Everything that Guerlain-philes love about the Extraits is intact, but the lighter concentration gave Jean Paul the opportunity to open up perfumes’ structures and reconceive them.
• Jicky always had two faces. It was a fougère and an oriental. For the Parfum de Toilette, Jean-Paul brought the fougère to the forefront. Because the extrait is denser, more animalic and far more resinous than the eau de toilette I’ve always thought that the the oriental side of Jicky was a function of the higher concentration. The PdT proves me wrong. It is the most fougère-like of the concentrations. It’s drier than the Eau de Toilette (EdT) and the raspiness of the lavender is a perfect fit for the creamy civet note pulled from the the Extrait. Surprisingly, the emphasis on a typically barbershop-style masculine genre doesn’t change Jicky’s legendary androgyny in the least. The close-quarters musky impression makes it as finger-licking sexy as all versions of Jicky are.
• l’Heure Bleue‘s combination of heliotrope, orange blossom and vanilla gives it the most dessert-like tone of the old-school Guerlains. The Extrait is like pastry, the EdT is like a super-charged dragée. The PdT is drier than both, less of a confection. Jean-Paul emphasized the spiciness of the floral bouquet, in the process toning down l’Heure Bleue’s notorious marshmallow accord. Heavy, spiced orientals were popular in the late ’70s and ’80s (Opium, Cinnabar, Magie Noire) and l’Heure Bleue PdT showed that Jean-Paul was attuned to the trends of the times. With a decreased emphasis on gourmanderie the PdT accentuates the medicinal side of the structure, making it lean more toward cough syrup than candy. It’s less powdery than the Extrait and less glittering than the EdT. l’Heure Bleue is a divisive perfume and the PdT won’t win over anyone who’s not already a fan, but for those of us who are, it’s a well-considered take on the original.
• I think of Mitsouko PdT as an oriental version of the original. All the makings of an oriental perfume have always been tucked away in Mitsouko’s structure: the gasoline-bergamot topnote, boozy fruit, thick flowers and an amber base. Mitsouko’s basic framework makes an oriental a logical choice and Jean-Paul showed how deeply he understand the accords and ideas threaded through the family style. But it’s also an odd move. By sinking the mossiness deep in a sweet base he downplayed the characteristic aspect of the world’s most famous chypre. He paints Mitsouko PdT with broad strokes, giving the impression of being more casual and chummy than earlier versions. I imagine this read as more modern when it was released in 1986.
• If the goal of the PdT were to split the difference between the EdT and the Extrait, Shalimar is the poster child. It’s a textbook best-of-both-worlds scenario: the sweet smoke of the parfum and the wink and growl of the Eau de Toilette. It’s not hugely different than the other concentrations, but it’s more versatile. It works with one spritz, but doesn’t lose proportion with ten.
• With the exception of Nahema and Jicky (Aimé Guerlain), the PdT were based on perfumes composed by Jean-Paul’s mentor and grandfather Jacques. Jean-Paul didn’t go easy on himself when he reworked his own Chamade. He took a burnished, lush fatty-waxy floral and gave it sharp edges. Chamade PdT is dry and and chalky and the central floral accord is tighter and more aggressive. It’s less overtly springlike than either the parfum’s honeyed-pollen waxiness or the Eau de Cologne’s easy-breeziness. It’s more bitter in scent and more stern in tone. It reads as a more intellectual remixing than the other PdTs but it’s no less successful.
• Since they were developed together Nahema’s Extrait and the PdT are of a piece. The PdT is slightly grittier and less succulent than the extrait but both are built on a palatial scale. Guerlain’s vision of a fruity-floral couldn’t be further than the gum-snapping 21st century model. Nahema is aggressively, ass-grabbingly seductive in both concentrations. It has the hall-of-mirrors intricacy of the most complex early Guerlain perfumes, reading like a glimmering red counterpart to l’Heure Bleue’s dusky blue. If I have complaints about some of Jean-Paul’s feminine perfumes being regressive, Nahema more than compensates. Released in 1979, it captured all the intensity and extremity of the 1980s. Yet in spite of the audaciousness, Nahema is touchingly pretty as well. Nahema was Jean-Paul’s first foray into the PdT concentration and the experiment appears to have worked. The majority of his mainstream feminines, including Jardins de Bagatelle, Samsara, and Champs Elysée, were produced in Extrait and EdT as well as Eau de Parfum, as the Parfums de Toilette came to be known.
Jean-Paul took on an enormous task in trying to update the brand’s catalogue to an ’80s style. How do you find balance in imbalance? Make order out of mess? The stylistic excess of the decade had a feeling of coercion. It was less Go Big or Go Home and more Go Big or Go Fuck Yourself. Jean-Paul relied on his thorough understanding of his family’s style of perfumery but steered well clear of nostalgia. The Parfums de Toilette are the ultimate Goldilocks perfumes in two respects. They were the “just right” concentration between Extrait and EdT. But they were also produced from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, the “just right” period of time. These were the years just before materials restrictions altered the majority of the brand’s mainstay perfumes, but it is recent enough for well-preserved bottles still to be found in impeccable condition. It’s no wonder the Parfums de Toilette have achieved unicorn status among fumies.