Perfumer Pierre Guillaume.
Felanilla is an iris-heavy oriental perfume from 2008. It came on the heels of two other irises in the Parfumerie Generale Line: Iris Oriental (née Iris Taizo) in 2006 and Cuir d’Iris in 2007. The three were part of the ‘new iris’ trend of the mid-’00s that blurred the line between mainstream and niche. The Parfumerie Generale perfumes and other independent perfumes like Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile and Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir were matched head-to-head by Dior Homme, Prada Infusion d’Iris and Gianfranco Ferre Ferre EDP.
Felanilla hit the scene at a very particular moment for iris. Niche perfumery was exploding and designer brands were keen to steal niche’s fire (and revenue). Guerlain, Cartier, Hermès, Dior, Chanel and the like were investing heavily in new ‘exclusive’ luxury sub-lines to lure niche customers out of LuckyScent, Osswald and Les Senteurs and into their own boutiques. Niche brands had always viewed themselves outside the mainstream. They were better than ‘ordinary’ perfumes because they were more inventive and more daring. The new high-end designer lines reversed the logic of the indies focusing on exclusivity rather than inventiveness. These new premier lines didn’t phrase themselves as outrageous or even as much different than their department store counterparts. They were simply more select and therefore more desirable. They were just better.
Iris was the perfect note to bridge the divide. (This was a heartbeat before oud.) Historically, orris denoted luxury and prestige. On a practical level, iris had an affinity with berry and chocolate notes on one side, sheer woody notes on another and powdery floral notes on still another. The versatility of the note created an effortless range from the sweet tooth of Guerlain Iris Ganache to the restraint of Chanel 28 La Pausa. The flexibility allowed for new sophisticated styles of gourmand perfumes at a time when a large cohort of young women were outgrowing the syrupy fruity-florals and cupcake gourmands they had worn for the past 5-10 years.
Felanilla veered away from the sweet end of the spectrum, but with a focus on vanilla it did comment on gourmandism, if obliquely. From a certain angle it smells like a dessert recipe that forgot the sugar. Like cough-syrup flavored buttercream icing. But the lack of sweetness had a point. It seems to say, ‘if you’re looking for sexy, the curves are in the vanilla, not in the sugar.’ From start to finish vanilla sits unadorned at the center of the perfume. It is fairly austere at the outset but gradually loosens its posture and settles into a more relaxed stance. A potent saffron note marks Felanilla as ‘of its era’ as much as the iris does, but the slight metallic touch it creates suits the overall firmness of the composition.
The iris and vanilla pairing might be a nod to Shalimar, but Felanilla skips the citrus lead-in and the sweet, smoky, powdery circus of the Guerlain classic. It freeze-dries the bulky classic oriental structure and shakes off the ornamentation, pairing down to essentials without a hint of nostalgia. Seen as an oriental, Felanilla doesn’t seem to fit any particular trends of the time. It does, though, compare interestingly to the ‘new irises’ that independent perfumers were devising at the time: Histoires de Parfums 1889, Serge Lutens Bas de Soie, le Labo Iris 39, l’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha, Parfum d’Empire Equistris. Guillaume had previously placed iris in a woody, savory-gourmand setting in Iris Oriental and against a sweet-leather backdrop in Cuir d’Iris. Felanilla continued the investigation of iris, focusing on the woody-balsamic range that Guillaume and the Parfumerie Generale line would become well-known for.
The state of the perfume market in the mid-late ’00s left me on the fence. I disliked the cynical trend of price-jacking that the exclusive lines fostered, but I loved the innovation that lead to exciting new approaches and styles. The trend of ‘new-irises’ might have been co-opted by the luxury houses, but it also gave us a broad range of imaginative and gorgeous perfumes. Guillaume’s irises capture the up-side of the time and have survived the test of time extremely well. 10 years later they compare favorably to any iris perfumes that have come along since.
(image, Cirque du Soleil Iris)