digging (into) vintage: Guy Robert’s woody florals.

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Perfumer and one-time President of La Société Française des Parfumeurs, Guy Robert was known for his rich, layered woody florals. Early in his career, Robert hit on an effective formula of aldehydes, flowers, musks and woods. With this framework he created perfumes that have come to define the terms ‘orchestral’ and ‘symphonic’ in perfumery. Robert’s style of woody floral-aldehydes has precedents in previous decades. Though he didn’t model his perfumes specifically on Ernest Beaux’s work, Mme Rochas (1960) and Calèche (1961) are like the apples that fell from the Chanel tree, the former in the mold of no. 5 and the latter, no. 22. They were more rounded and less chilly than the Chanels. Floral aldehydes were innovative and might even have been shocking in the 1920s, but by the 1960s they were the status quo. They fit well-recognized criteria of feminine beauty and were charmingly unthreatening. (For more on the duo, read here.)

Robert’s feminines were conservative by design. Perfume industry expert Michael Edwards quoted Robert: “Houses then were looking for nice, flowery accords, new, but not too original because that would limit their appeal.” Over the course of his career he adapted his style to trends in the industry, but the propriety and decorum of the basic template shone through and the adaptation to ‘modern’ trends seems a bit like window dressing. Today Robert’s perfumes seem stylishly dated and era-specific, not a disadvantage at a time when fumies recontextualize vintage perfumes and lose much of the baggage these perfumes carried decades ago.

After Robert created the twin feminines Mme. Rochas and Calèche he did the same with two masculines, Monsieur Rochas (1969) and Hermès Equipage (1970). The two masculine fragrances were as similar to each other as the feminines were and the pattern of launching them is remarkably similar. In both cases, Robert first created a perfume for Rochas. Soon thereafter, he composed one for Hermès that could easily have beeen seen as a slight variation on the Rochas perfume. Smoke seems to be Robert’s masculine signifier in the same way that powder indicates femininity in Mme. Rochas and Calèche. Monsieur Rochas and Equipage (and apparently Gucci pour Homme) had elements of both the chypre and the fougère and sat comfortably in the center of perfumery’s gentlemanly norms.  They were recognizably masculine but were less inescapably gendered than the feminines.

Robert’s feminines of the 1970s were exquisite. Gucci 1 (1974) and Dioressence (1979) were large, effusive perfumes. No more hiding behind soap (Calèche) or make-up (Mme Rochas). Robert had clearly hit his stride and his mastery of the woody floral lead to some of his strongest work, but seen against the backdrop of a rapidly changing perfume market, traditional woody-florals seemed conventional. 15-16 years after Mme. Rochas and Calèche, Gucci 1 was a variation of his proven model. Denser and more ambery than Calèche, Gucci 1 cautiously approached the trend for full-bodied, balsamic materials. Robert used his aldehyde-over-sandalwood motif to create a silvery metallic effect and Gucci 1 reads like a disco version of Robert’s standard set.

Gucci 1 was Robert’s opportunity to venture into new territory and explore more modern styles, but caution won and Gucci 1 was the closest Robert ever came to groovy. Three years later Robert released Dioressence and traditionalism returned like a boomerang. Dioressence was an exceptional, powdered floriental. It was potent, had waves of sillage and a strong animalic presence. Unfortunately, to use a contentious but appropriate expression, most women under 40 in 1979 would have called it old-lady perfume. After disco-Gucci, Dioressence was the perfume equivalent of a beautiful young woman dressed in dowdy old clothes. It was reformulated by Max Gavarry a few years after it was released in an attempt to make it more up-to-date.

The conservative social pendulum swing of the early ’80s worked to Robert’s advantage and Amouage Gold (1983) was his redemption.  Robert did something interesting with the Golds. The two were released simultaneously as a his/hers pair. Gold Woman was the height of Robert’s aldehydic woody-floral style. Every descriptor is superlative: shining aldehydes, a chorus of florals, tightly knit woods, including incense, a nod to the Omani origin of the perfume. Despite a swoon-worthy opening and hypnotic florals, it is the creaminess of the basenotes that makes Gold Woman stand out most from Robert’s other perfumes.

Gold Woman carried all the same gender baggage as Robert’s previous feminines. The femininity seems hyperinflated and the highly structured artifice is the olfactory equivalent of full hair, makeup and costume. It’s possible to criticize Robert for not taking a greater risk when given the resources to make any perfume wanted, but Robert stuck to his guns and his ladylike florals as he had in the past. Rather than novelty, Robert aimed for perfection.

Gold Man was an enormous perfume that shared the lofty florals and resinous woody underpinning of Gold Woman. It took a clever turn and replaced the flash of aldehydes with musky powder. On the olfactory level, the two are a perfect matched set–his and hers florals. But unlike Woman, which dove headlong into hyperfemininity, Gold Man moved away from Robert’s tight-fitting gender norms. It is lavish and expressive, nothing like gentlemanly drinks-and-smoke character of Monsieur Rochas and Equipage.

So, Gold Man was a break from Robert’s past. Or was it? Each of two Amouage perfumes has an antecedent in Robert’s body of work. Gold Woman was quite similar to Gucci 1 (and to a lesser extent, Mme. Rochas) but had an exaggerated proportion that made it at home in the 1980s. It was brighter, bigger and busier than Gucci 1, but followed the basic formula of aldehydes/florals/balsams/animalics that gave the Gucci perfume its long arc. Gold Man crossed the gender line and channeled Dioressence. Both are powdery, musky florientals with strong aromas of ripe skin. Gold Man took the funk much further than Dioressence and ultimately smells like a baby-powdered crotch.

Only 7 of Robert’s 16 perfumes are still produced today and few are anywhere near the impeccable state of the originals. * Robert’s perfumes of the 1950s, Doblis for Hermès, Lasso for Jean Patou and Chouda for Grès are long-discontinued as are Gucci 1, Gucci pour Homme, Mary Quant Havoc and Menard Mérefame from the 1970s and La Prarie One Perfect Rose and The Pink Rooms Parfum no. 1 from the 1990s. The discontinued perfumes are nearly impossible to find and there is very little record of Robert’s earliest perfumes. His perfumes were in the crosshairs for strip-and-gut reformulation for a few reasons. The formulae were apparently byzantine and the floral materials were pricey, making them an easy target for producers who tended to whittle down formulae over time, either eliminating costly materials or swapping them out for cheaper ones. Restrictions of materials chip away from another angle. Animal-derived materials are betes noires and flowers are now toxic in dose. Sandalwood, a critical material of Robert’s complex woody bases, isn’t back online in quantity yet and has no easy aromachemical substitute.

(photo, Dior collection late 1960s)

Robert’s work helps to answer a difficult question in perfumery, namely, how is a perfume conservative or progressive? A perfume’s compositional approach is conservative if it doesn’t veer far from the standards and identifiable features that define its genre or style. Robert’s perfumes are exceptionally detailed and precise and are the quintessential woody florals of their time. They are not compositionally lacking by any means and they advanced the caliber of the genre. So is the genre itself the culprit? In the case of the woody-floral, it may be. As a style, it is predicated on the the mixed-floral perfumes from earlier in the century such as Lanvin My Sin, Caron Narcisse Noir and Jean Patou Joy.

The woody-floral subgenre was born when perfumers amped the basenotes of the mixed floral and gave it a more durable core. Riding on the coattails of icons gave woody-florals credibility, but couldn’t keep them from appearing old-hat. Creating perfumes in a conservative style for traditional houses like Rochas and Hermès targets a specific buyer, one who likely isn’t looking for a revolution to join. Robert’s style might be up for debate, but the technical merits of his work are beyond reproach. Conservative, yes, but outstanding by every metric of form and quality. Robert apparently never forgotten his own dictum, that, “A perfume must above all smell good.” and his perfumes are among the most elegant of his era.

In an odd way, the most staid perfumes of the past can be the most interesting vintage additions to a collection. They survive the ravages of trend by ignoring it. If Robert’s perfumes seemed confined by their gender in previous decades, today they seem both charged by it and unencumbered by it. Not weighed down by the regressive stance they might have struck when they were released, Robert’s perfumes can be appreciated more abstractly. Or they can be worn with camp. They are flawless examples of technique and and form and deserve to be recognized.

 

(* Before he was a minimalist, Jean-Claude Ellena composed First, a baroque aldehydic woody-floral for Van Cleef and Arpels, so he knows how to manage the intricacy of the style. Ellena’s formulations of Calèche and Equipage are different than Robert’s but they are the best current versions of Robert’s perfumes. They hold true to the intent and shape of the early models but offer a thoughtful editing and distillation. Arguably, Ellena did what Robert himself seemed unable to do: make his signature style relevant to contemporary sensibilities.)

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2 Comments

  1. Grayspoole says:

    Hello Jtd! So much excellent analysis here! I wish I could comment at length but work looms. Once really needs to focus on nuances to differentiate the woody florals. If they are not your cuppa, they can be easily dismissed as “soapy!” “powdery!” or if you want to go the Road to Obvious, “aldehydic!” But many of them are so beautifully composed. I was given a good bottle of Caleche in the 1980’s but I never warmed up to its austere woods. Meanwhile, vintage Madame Rochas has enough florals that I can enjoy the balance between the astringent soap and the dewy petals. I’ve never tried Amouage Gold (I guess I should) but I just found a good, pre-1993 bottle of First EDT that I am enjoying very much. (The current version is okay, but the vintage is decidedly better.)

    Meanwhile, I think I will wear vintage Dioressence today. To me, it is still groovy. What an unusual and creative composition it is! I don’t think I know of another perfume that is quite like it. Do you?

    1. jtd says:

      Hi, Grayspoole. I agree about Dioressence–totally groovy. But I think it’s a perfume that benefits from its place as a post-niche, vintage-lover’s fetish. I keep making a distinction between Robert’s compositional expertise and the culturally regressive tone of his perfumes. Dioressence is buried treasure for those who love vintage perfume and have ‘learned the language’ of independent perfumery over the past 15 or so years. But at the time of its release I think it must have seemed a bit frumpish.

      I think your characterization of Mme. Rochas captures why it works so well–soapy and perfumey but also bracingly floral. Astringent is a good word for it.

      Jealous of your vinage First! My EDP is from some time just after 2000. Would be interested to know your thoughts on Gold Woman. It’s a very interesting perfume if you know Robert’s earlier perfumes. If you ever get the chance to sniff an early version of Gold Man, it’s so brazenly skin-funky that I can’t believe it sold. The current version is still wonderful but the early version was a skank-fest.

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