Health & Grooming

Retr’eau chic

No longer perfume’s poor relation, colognes are fresh, finely balanced and cool once more, says Vicci Bentley.

May 17 2010
Vicci Bentley

It’s an easy weekend in a bottle – the olfactory equivalent of slipping into cargo pants and a T-shirt at the end of a stuffy, trussed-up schedule. The citrus burst of sunshine and crushed herbs makes good old-fashioned cologne the ultimate democratic choice that everyone – male, female or brooding teenager – can happily exploit to dispel existential woes. No surprise, then, that it’s having a high fashion moment now.

Back from obscurity, dignified classics are reclaiming rightful shelf space. Cue Chanel Eau de Cologne (£160, 200ml), originally launched in 1929 and now given a rejuvenating citrus fruit and neroli upgrade by perfumer Jacques Polge. Dior Eau Fraîche (£68, 100ml), legendary nose Edmond Roudnitska’s sparkling rush of citrus on a suede-like patchouli base from 1953, is currently starring in Les Créations de Monsieur Dior’s classic scent revival. Meanwhile, the classic Acqua di Parma Colonia reappears in a Prestige limited edition, liveried in hand-stitched calfskin (£74, 100ml). Alongside orange-sorbet lipstick in beauty halls, there’s a buzz around Clarins Eau des Jardins (£27, 100ml), a mouthwatering minty grapefruit and the latest addition to the popular Eau Dynamisante stable. And in achingly cool boutiques, some grand old names – think 4711 (£25, 90ml) and DR Harris Traditional Cologne (£28.50, 100ml) – are the “new” cult remedies for urban stress.

James Craven, perfume adviser at Belgravia boutique Les Senteurs, has observed the trend with interest. “Clients tell me they want something to reflect downsizing – an uncomplicated scent they can spritz all over and feel 19 again,” he confides. “There’s a back-to-nature feeling about colognes – a return to something clean, simple and clear.”

What’s not to appreciate about a Mediterranean burst of lemon, bergamot and neroli assuaged by lavender, rosemary or thyme with perhaps the softest hint of woods or musk to anchor its airiness? Traditionally based on an average of 12 natural ingredients, colognes are the least demanding of all fragrance families – more forgiving than pushy, complex florals or bolshy, leathery chypres. These are scents you come back to again and again, simply because they’re uplifting without needing to be lived up to.

But if there’s a sense of dressing down about cologne, there’s also an element of ambiguity. In scent speak, eau de cologne doubles as a generic term for perfume’s weakest strength (around five per cent perfume essence diluted in alcohol). A volatile poor relation to eau de toilette’s 10 per cent and eau de parfum’s 15 per cent essence, cologne’s staying power is limited, and you don’t leave wafts of it behind you for hours. But as a fragrance tradition in its own right, it’s lasted more than 300 years.

Traditional eau de cologne dates back to 1695, and an “Aqua Mirabilis” created by Giovanni Paolo Feminis, a barber from the Vigezzo Valley close to the Italian/Swiss border. Whether or not Feminis already had the phial tucked in his pocket when he emigrated to Cologne is still debated. At any rate, in 1708 he penned a homesick note to his brother: “I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.”

By 1727, the Cologne Faculty of Medicine had patented Feminis’ misty-eyed formula – a blend of citrus oils, lavender and rosemary distilled in brandy. By the time his nephew Giovanni Maria Farina took over the business in 1732, Aqua Mirabilis was renowned both as a scent and bucolic cure-all for ailments from stomach ache to depression. It was the marketing sensation of the day, not least because of its ambitious blend of a dozen or so ingredients – frugal compared to today’s burgeoning scent lists which can easily stretch into the hundreds.

In the 18th century, the crowned heads of Europe were cologne’s most avid consumers – Louis XV’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, was an ardent fan. After the Revolution, Napoleon would glug bottles of the stuff daily. Beyond its invigorating reputation, cologne was believed to steady the nerves and sharpen the wits. Not surprisingly, rival companies eager for a piece of Farina’s success rushed out copies and counterfeits – some even with Farina’s name on the bottle. When in the saturated market of 1810 the public disclosure of ingredients in medicines became mandatory, manufacturers rebranded their miracle waters as perfumes only, rather than divulge their formulas.

Even so, fierce claims of heritage persist among the traditionalists. Farina’s closely guarded “original” secret recipe is still produced by eighth-generation family members in Cologne at Obenmarspforten 21, the world’s oldest perfume factory. Meanwhile, 4711 (the number of the Muelhens perfumery in nearby Glockengasse) is based on a formula obtained from a Carthusian monk. Over in Paris, Roger & Gallet claims its famous Jean Marie Farina Cologne Extra-Vieille is itself a direct descendant of the original Aqua Mirabilis, via a French Farina who sold them the business in the 19th century.

Now that the Zeitgeist is leaner and greener, limelight-grabbing scents with their overtly opulent half-life no longer seem out of place, and these old names are gaining a new lease of life. Factor in our appetite for herbally-induced wellbeing, plus a hint of wistful nostalgia in the air, and conditions are prime for both classic comebacks and the rise of a subtle new breed of connoisseur colognes and longer-lasting eaux de parfums made in their citrussy style.

Even the élitist perfumer Serge Lutens – who once declared he would never make an “eau” – has responded to the new mood. “In a world that is over-scented, I wanted to create an anti-fragrance – the sensation of wearing something clean, and not a perfume,” he says of his breezy L’Eau Serge Lutens eau de parfum (£84, 100ml). Yet composed from 400 ingredients, it’s the antithesis of a simple scent.

Revolutionary stuff, then. But to most perfumers, making an old-school cologne is a rite of passage. “Colognes are formulated to a very, very tight brief,” says James Craven. “But really good perfumers will always rise to the challenge. They appreciate the beauty of being able to create something quite exquisite from the same 12 ingredients. It takes a great nose and genuine patience to create a connoisseur cologne.”

The trick is to sneak in an individual imprint – the unpredictability that takes any recipe to a level of excellence. According to perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, it can be a devious process. “It’s easy enough to make variations on the classic theme,” he says. “But to make a simple formula excellent, you have to bring out the more subtle nuances of those few ingredients.” In his Acqua di Colonia (£62, 50ml) Villoresi uses mandarins in three different stages of maturation: green for an initial bite of freshness, yellow for just-pressed vitality and red for an intense sweetness with spicy-ripe undertones.

At Miller Harris, Lyn Harris exploits the bitter orange tree – blossom, peel, leaves and twigs in her elegant Le Petit Grain (£110, 100ml). Nevertheless, she admits that reinterpreting old formulas can be tricky. Ethical and toxicity issues now mean that the use of a growing list of natural ingredients – including musk oil, mosses and even citrus notes – is either capped or banned outright. That’s a headache if you’re charged with “updating” an old classic, or upholding the reputation of a globally renowned fragrance house.

Thierry Wasser, appointed exclusive perfumer at Guerlain two years ago, has bigger boots to fill than most. Each of the four generations of the Guerlain dynasty created a cologne, starting in 1853 with Eau de Cologne Impériale, a brisk bergamot, lemon and verbena affair, which Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain presented to the Empress Eugénie. Wasser’s greener, nuzzle-fresh La Cologne du Parfumeur (€72, 100ml) is a tribute to the exhilarating minty Eau de Guerlain, created in 1974 by the legendary Jean-Paul Guerlain. In an echo of cologne’s gustative past, during May Guerlain is hosting sensory tasting sessions at its Champs-Elysées boutique. Customers will be served iced cocktails mixed with cologne-like ingredients – orange flower water, lavender cordial, mint and rosemary – before sniffing Cologne du Parfumeur.

Fittingly, Wasser remembers creating his cologne as a palate-cleansing exercise in itself – the citrus sorbet a light relief from tackling his first major commercial fragrance for Guerlain, the floral-oriental Idylle. “It was my way of taking time out,” he recalls. “The formula is simple, but not simplistic – raw materials matter even more. To be distinctive, you must use the ones you truly love, then allow them to express themselves in a pure form. In my case, I layered the classical structure with an intensely sweet, green orange blossom and musks to give it a modern attitude.”

Ingredients not usually found in colognes, let alone in the same bottle, also make for dynamic updates. Jo Malone Oud & Bergamot Cologne Intense (£80, 100ml, from July) is Christine Nagel’s audacious east-west rapprochement, combining resinous wood with a light, fresh quality. Sexy, salty angelica is the intrigue in Jean-Claude Ellena’s peppery-green wisp Voyage d’Hermès (£53, 35ml).

For Francis Kurkdjian (the talent behind big hitters Narciso Rodriguez for Her and Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile), the powdery background of his thyme-and-lavender-enhanced Cologne Pour Le Matin (£125, 200ml) gives it an unexpected intimacy – like being gently woken by morning sunshine on the pillow, he suggests. The perfect first scent impression – after the coffee? It might help you ease yourself into a difficult day following an emotional night.

Thierry Wasser agrees: “Refreshing and stimulating, my cologne accompanies me as I wake up. Depending on how I feel, I combine it with a few drops of my regular scent to give it more power, or I wear it on its own like a real fragrance.” Lorenzo Villoresi wears his as a security blanket. “These are happy, straightforward notes,” he affirms. “Friendly, safe and protective.” So splash it on with abandon, then? Thierry Wasser nods. “Cologne has a generous soul,” he says. “It would be a pity not to use it that way.”

See also

Perfume