Parfums Retro Grand Cuir, 2013

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Perfumer Hugh Spencer.

Parfums Retro Grand Cuir is framed for you before you even try it. Putting the expectation right out front is an interesting strategy. The name tells you it will be a backward-looking, stonking leather perfume. While the name is not an outright fiction, it’s a ruse. Grand Cuir is a leather perfume, but it plays rough with genres and assumptions. If you take the name as a suggestion rather than scripture, the perfume speaks for itself and the fun starts.

Grand Cuir refers to the big, androgynous leathers of the early 20th century, the smoking and drinking party girls and boys such as Caron Tabac Blond, the various Cuirs de Russie, Schiaparelli Shocking and Lanvin Scandal. It is formal but rakish in that unbuttoned tuxedo, end of the evening style. It also links to the whopping aromatic fougeres of later in the 20th century with herbal, soapy facets that smack of loud shower-singing. The references might be retro, but its genre-blurring was current when released in 2013 and the huskiness of the floral leather notes matches a pendulum-swing away from sheer suede/leather notes and toward smoky, peaty leather tones.

Like the early 20th Century Shalimars, Emeraudes and Tabus with their dress up, play-acting orientalism, the art deco-era leather perfumes had a bit of costumey amateur-theater to them. The aromatic fougère of the mid-20th century was equally burdened with drama, in this case the overstuffed props of a wounded masculinity. Grand Cuir takes the stage but does it with a wry, comedy-of-manners-style that suits the project. The irony is smart and never reaches into sarcasm. Grand Cuir simply lives in a world of props and set-dressing appropriate to the genres.

Grand Cuir plays with olfactory tones as much as it plays with genres. Soapiness is common to both floral-leathers and fougères and Grand Cuir uses it to modulate the tannic woodiness of the leather and scratchy herbal qualities. The perfume balances tones of voice that typically would be dissonant. The hissiness of the orange blossom-leather pairing sits easily next to the barbershop quartet of the fougère. Grand Cuir is a big broad perfume and holds these differences in place without them seeming shoehorned into the same bottle.

Taken seriously, lightly or laughingly, Grand Cuir is a potent but nuanced perfume. Its opening gives a picture of the journey of the next 12 hours. The details, though, are nicely calibrated and the sites that you see en route are delightful.

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