(image Yaya Han as Wonderwoman)
Perfumer Bernard Chant’s brilliance can be seen in the two families of perfume that stem from Gres Cabochard and Clinique Aromatics Elixir (AE). Disregard the current reformulated version of Cabochard, you can extrapolate Cabochard’s genius from the current Aramis by Aramis and Estee Lauder Azuree. Both are based the original Cabochard and are hard leather chypres. The AE family, formerly just AE and its slightly declawed version for men, Aramis 900, now includes Aromatics Elixir Perfumer’s Reserve (PR). A quick search will give you notes and some apt descriptions of AE. Its genius is self-evident. Open bottle. Breathe. It’s incomparable. And despite likely reformulation it continues today in its largely original form.
AE is so brash and sweeping that by comparison any words I use to describe PR make it seem somehow small. AE Perfumer’s Reserve is a quieter, more sober perfume and if I simply compare them, I run the risk of making PR seem like a lesser version of AE. But as their names imply, they should be compared. Although technically a floral chypre, a rose chypre, AE is defined by the patchouli overdose that gives it its woody, balsamic, earthy tone. PR is more a classic floral chypre. There is certainly patchouli, but the overall tone is mossy where AE is woody, and the white floral quality is smooth rather than sharp. Differences aside, PR doesn’t upset the balance, the shape of the original. You can smell the shape of AE in PR, but they differ in scale and proportion. AE’s balance happens far from the center. It’s like a huge seesaw with a heavy rose and a dense patchouli battling to win but winding up evenly matched. PR is balanced like a delicate mobile; small, light, no fear it will come crashing down. PR’s balance is poise; AE’s is that of an animal ready to pounce. So again the problem of comparison: is PR subtler than AE or less assured?
Interestingly, PR is more animalic. AE has been describes as animalic, fecal, civet-heavy. Whatever elements are use in its composition, though, it smells distinctly botanical, like a forest floor, like decaying plant life becoming soil. Flora, not fauna. Although polite, PR is distinctly animalic. It has that bodily feel that suits the wonderfully creepy side of white flowers, particularly the steamy orange blossom in PR.
Era and genre: In the 1970s AE was considered contemporary and therefore modern in the artistic sense. Although clearly in the chypre camp, it was revolutionary. It opened a whole new wing in the chypre structure. I recently wrote about my love for the late 20th century rose chypre. Katie asked me the logical question, why did I not include AE? My answer was that AE stands apart even from its own genre. It supersedes category. It is iconic, yes, but we throw that word at a lot of perfumes. AE is a fixed point around which late 20th and 21st century perfumery moves. The hard green, leather and rose chypres of the 70s-80s followed in AE’s wake but none of them ever truly followed AE’s lead in this particular woody, balsamic direction. Even the forceful Scherrer de Scherrer seems a bit cuddly next to AE. AE’s structure demonstrates the synergistic complexity that underpins classical perfumery, yet rather than coming off as effete or over bred (outcomes of excessive focus on form in the arts) AE is in fact menacing. People call this grandma perfume? This is the big, bad wolf disguised as grandma. The complexity of formula allows AE a split feel: it is harshly comforting, seductively off-putting. It is nuance writ large. PR is neither revolutionary, nor retro-homage, nor a neo-chypre of the 31 rue Cambon school. It is an essay on the classical chypre form exquisitely phrased for the chypre nostalgist wandering a world decimated by the IFRA Grim Reaper.
PR feels as if it could have been composed in the 1950s or 1970s, yet at the same time there’s a peachy fruitiness that tells you that PR belongs to the 21st century. It’s a marvelous trick, really, and shows the consideration that went into the making of PR. The fruit is nothing like what you might think when you hear the words “fruity-floral.” The peach just gives an ambery glow to the otherwise deliciously buttery, mossy floral quality that actually reminds me more of my 1970s bottle of Miss Dior than AE.
And here is the dilemma of PR. The name would suggest it is an heir to AE. It is exquisite, and compositionally it reflects AE, yet it is lush where AE is feral. I would argue that this distinction of spirit is more defining than similarity of form and that the two are more different than alike. But difference is usually where the fun is. I wear each for completely different reasons and never hesitate deciding which to wear as I often do between AE and Aramis 900, which actually smell alike.
To my mind, AE’s true heir would be Thierry Mugler Angel (1992, perfumers Olivier Cresp and Yves de Chiris). Both are monumental, change-the-rules perfumes not so much concerned with putting you at ease as clearing a path and going where they will. Each also reflects a strong point of view of the feminine gender of its decades. AE captures the strong independence, the reach for equality that drove 60s-70s feminism. Angel suited the hyper-femme 90s femininity that made the 70s feminists apoplectic. Interestingly, both are potent, patchouli-based and polarizing. Equally interesting is that while AE redefined the chypre genre, it spawned no imitators. Angel on the other has lead to a slew of copycats, thus starting a genre. I find it odd that AE was given such wide berth where Angel was pursued.
So who is the heir to AE, PR or Angel? More to the point, why decide? We still have AE itself.