Hermès Bel Ami Vetiver, 2013

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Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena.

I’m split on the recent spate of note-flankers from Hermès. Rose Amazone, Bel Ami Vetiver and Equipage Geranium.

Pessimistic: Hermès are stocking the cupboards with a few flankers until Christine Nagel can come up to speed.

Optimistic: Contemporary versions of the classics build the past into the future, mirroring the hand-off from Ellena to Nagel.

In flanking the original Bel Ami, Bel Ami Vetiver simplifies the perfume but dilutes the concept. Adding a note doesn’t complicate the perfume, it unexpectedly streamlines it. Bel Ami Vetiver is even more pared down than Ellena’s closely-shaved reformulation of Bel Ami that Hermès currently offer. The 1986 original Bel Ami was a complex, hard gasoline leather with stylistic ties to the rough leathers from the middle of the century such as Cabochard, Bandit and especially Miss Balmain. Ellena’s reformulation is successful  but has the tone of an editorial statement on the virtues of minimalism. Ellena’s approach holds that paring down complexity reduces unnecessary detail and reveals the ‘true’ essence of a perfume. Ellena uses a deliberately limited palate and his version holds the shape of the original but decreases the heft and opacity substantially. Whether Ellena’s style appeals you or not, he proves his point and  successfully modernizes perfumes that might otherwise seem dated.

Bel Ami Vetiver goes a step further toward Ellena’s signature translucence. After a whiff of gasoline evaporates in the topnote, the vetiver note bends the perfume closer to wood than leather, blunting the force of the original Bel Ami. It feels a bit like a clean version of a dirty joke but I imagine it will be very popular. It’s less distinctive that the original but it’s generic by design. The flanker takes a step back from the original rather than forward. Think of it as Bel Ami version 0.5. It sits dead center between Bel Ami and the pastel center of the Hermessence Collection. It doesn’t match my inclinations, but it accomplishes its goal of bringing the outlying classics into the fold.

Bel Ami Vetiver’s dialed-back version of a famously loud original perfume reminds me the easy listening music piped into my local Korean baths. A lead vocalist, slowed synth drums and strings, 2 back-up singers for the endless refrains. They’re brilliant with “The Girl from Ipanema.” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a little disconcerting.


Image, Loretta Lux.

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