digging (into) vintage: Grès Cabochard, 1959 (or, Reformulation Strategies)

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(image, cafeverbal.com)

Expectation works against Grès Cabochard, poor dear. Comparing the current formulation to a vintage model, Cabochard seems like a grainy, blurry photo. I can see that the topnotes are meant to capture the dry florals and bite of leather, but it comes off as both shrill and thin at the same time. And it simply falls apart. Within five minutes it becomes clear that Cabochard won’t venture down either the leather or chypre paths, instead becoming a disorganized but harsh dry woody fragrance.

I won’t flog a dead horse. I’ll just say Aramis and Azurée, which descend from Cabochard, prove that Cabochard need not be so bad. The Cabochard dilemma makes me consider a few angles on the difficulties of reformulation. I know that reformulation has always occurred in perfumery. This current quandry, though, due firstly to restriction on ingredients and then the meanness of the companies ordering the reformulation, seems to be particular to our time.

Some thoughts.

Zombie or Ghost?

I’d call Cabochard the unequivocal zombie, dead but still lurching among us. The name is the same, the bottle is a knock-off of the original, the juice is a cheap, cynical reformulation. Cheap, since the budget for making it can’t have been generous. Cynical, as it rides on the longstanding reputation of both the vintage perfume and the perfumer.

There are quite a few ghosts out there, but who they are will depend on your perspective. I find the 2000’s  Vetiver by Guerlain sensational. I vaguely remember Vetiver back as far as the 1980s, and while the current rendering might be different, it is still my favorite vetiver by yards. For many, though, it is fallen just enough from its former state that they won’t wear it. Vintage Vent Vert is universally acclaimed, the 1990 version by Calice Becker was apparently a welcome ghost, and the current version is generally panned (zombie.)

Quality Reformulation

Whether done covertly (Mitsouko? Chanel 5? Habit Rouge?), openly (Cuir de Lancome), by full-on resurrection (Azzaro Couture, Robert Piguet’s Baghari) or some combination of the above (Aramis Gentleman’s Collection) it is clear: a balance of quality, money and talent pay off. Restrictions on the use of classic components is a drag. Fortunately, though, innovations in chemistry and botany give us powerful new tools.

Maintain the Quality of your Heritage Products

Sounds like a simple strategy but I don’t imagine that it’s necessarily easy, especially with changing access to botanicals and year to year fluctuations. Some make solid efforts in this direction, Chanel and Guerlain being good examples. Others, less so. I’ll leave it up to you to identify these houses. Special mention should really be made here of Estée Lauder’s success. The heritage products (eg. Azurée, Knowing, Aliage) continue to be available and at remarkable prices.

Die a Good Death

There are so many vintage perfumes that lived great lives, were a gift to those who wore them, and then went away, whether remembered today or not. I’m all for preservation, and recognize that the art of perfumery remains largely undocumented and without theoretical consideration in the formal sense. There should be as many institutions like Osmothèque as there are modern art museums. The Theory of Perfume should be an elective in mainstream universities. (I’m not kidding.) But I also recognize that perfumery is an art that, like dance, is experiential and temporal. In fact, this aspect of both dance and perfume is both desirable and noble. It helps me to feel alive to be in the midst of something beautiful that will in fact end.

Simply, Change

Robert Piguet’s line is a good example of the value of multiple strategies. BanditFracas, BaghariFutur—reformulate to the original specs as best you can with good intentions, quality components and creative talent. But then there’s Visa: keep the name, allow a great perfumer (again Guichard) to reincarnate it. No deception, no lie, no marketing sleight-of-hand. Visa isn’t an attempt to recreate the original. It takes the qualities and intentions of the original and then gives us something novel. The majority of Piguet’s fragrances are completely new models and they stand as equal members in the line with the icons Bandit and Fracas.

Find a New Solution

Sure, there are whole categories of fragrance that are new—candied gourmands, aquatics, transparent orientals. But there is also an attempt to reinterpret a genre that’s been stymied. Chanel’s 31 Rue Cambon reimagines the chypre without oakmoss. I appreciate the attempt to deconstruct the chypre, step away from it, weigh its abstract qualities, and reconsider them with a different construction. There is something intriguing about this approach. The perfumer must be passionate about a form, yet disinterested in the analysis. I have faith that this will give us some great perfumes.

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