Perfumer Jean Kerléo.
Somewhere in the ’90s the chypre fell off the radar. Blame the IFRA, blame Angel (also 1992), blame whoever you like. It went quietly from the pinnacle of chic to over-the-hill faster than you can say ‘mousse de chêne.’
Why and how to restrict perfume materials is a popular if confusing debate today, but in the 70s-90s the discussion of the hazards of aromachemicals and botanicals took place behind closed-doors. The general public didn’t know what went into perfumes in the first place or who made them, so discussions about restricting oakmoss or refining bergamot had little significance. They did have a stifling effect on perfume composition, though it might not have been readily apparent in 1992.
Chypre perfumes tend to have a strong presence and it’s easy to characterize the eras of the chypre. The ur-chypre by Coty and the seminal chypre by Guerlain, Mitsouko. The animalic chypres of the ’40s (eg. Miss Dior). The moonlit floral chypres of the ’50s (Jolie Madame.) The aldehydic and green chypres of the ’60s (Calèche and YSL Y ), the liberated chypres of the ’70s (Aromatics Elixir and Diorella) and the roaring rose chypres of the ’80s (La Nuit and Parfum de Peau).
But the chypre seemed to lose its identity in the ’90s. It was seen as both suffocating and passé when compared to the self-effacing new style of ’90s perfumes and their notes of air, water, light and apology. After the loud florals and orientals of the ’80s, modernity in perfume came to be synonymous with minimalism and the chypre became synonymous with old-fashioned. Traditional perfumes became outmoded and ‘classical’ perfumery started to seem like bad Hollywood Regency–stylistically overburdened yet without the saving grace of true kitsch.
The 1990s chypre-style, if there was one, played with the chypre’s affinity for fruit notes. YSL Yvresse (Champagne) 1992, Nina Ricci Deci Delà 1994 and Cartier So Pretty 1995 split the difference between the chypre and sweet fruity-florals of the day. Hybrids such as these aim for the best of both worlds. The risk is that they lack synergy and simply combine notes and materials from each genre. These three were famously successful but have been discontinued, I suppose pointing out another risk: that even a successful hybrid might not be popular enough to stay afloat.
Sublime has a finger in so many different pies that the term hybrid doesn’t quite capture it. Chypre? Oriental? Woody Floral? Yes, and then some. I think of it as a Resinous Woody Chypre. Cop-out? Sure, but it fits. It’s also fruity, floral and powdery. Powder over woods creates a sweet-tart dynamic similar to the vetiver-vanilla dissonance of Habanita, but in Sublime it is quieter, less stark. Mandarin and ylang ylang give Sublime a lusher feel than the expectable bergamot/white floral found in many chypres. It follows a long arc and the drydown takes its time arriving. Atypical for a ’90s perfume, the basenotes are the most complex part of the perfume. Resinous woods define the drydown–vetiver, patchouli, and especially sandalwood–but amber, musk and civet keep the woods from growing sharp. The pillow-soft drydown is classically proportioned and has the diaphanous depth of traditional woody orientals like Vol de Nuit and Bois des Isles.
Unfortunately it’s no surprise that Sublime sputtered and stalled. It wasn’t bad–not by a longshot–but it was seen as irrelevant when held to the growingly detached, hygienic aesthetic that would come to define the 1990s. Viewed on its own merits, Sublime is a history lesson on the genre by one of the 20th century’s strongest classicists and historians, Jean Kerléo. It is also urges speculation as to where the chypre genre might have gone if materials restriction hadn’t hobbled it.
Whether you like traditional chypres or not, if you’d like a tour through the history of French perfumery in a single bottle, try vintage Sublime. It illustrates the techniques and ideals of a century of perfumery and who better to conduct the tour than Kerléo, founder of Osmothèque?
(Image of Lee Liberace, source unknown.)