Niche is dead: long live niche. Judging from the distinct whiff of nostalgia in the air, a familiar heir is apparent in the wings, for classic scents are staging a comeback. In a frenzied market where scents must clamour for attention, independent brands once relied upon to buck commercial mediocrity are beginning to seem mainstream. It is rare these days to sniff a new scent that stops you in your tracks, urges you to ask its name or embeds itself in your memory. Moreover, in our pursuit of individualism, rediscovering recherché treasures feels like an intimacy renewed.
Occasionally, a name alone will beguile. Dior’s latest female fragrance, for instance, appropriates the moniker of one of the 20th century’s greatest floral classics, Jean Patou Joy (£250 for collector’s edition 15ml pure perfume). The May rose and jasmine heart are common to both. Yet Patou’s original, launched in 1929 after the Wall Street Crash and dubbed the world’s most costly perfume, pulsated opulence. According to Dior Joy (£54 for 30ml EDP), simplicity is the new indulgence – as its clean white musks and soothing sandalwood attest.
Although broad, the perfumer’s palette is not infinite, so it is inevitable that aromas are reworked. We instinctively judge a new fragrance by comparing it to what we already know: scents are bottled memories after all. Yet drenched as they are in nostalgia and that giddy hint of calmer, more elegantly assured days, there must surely be a further compulsion to classic scents.
“Perfumers look at the great classics because they’re benchmarks, the best of their type,” British perfumer Roja Dove explains. “It is rare to imagine a scent that has never been smelt before and classics are revered for years because someone rewrote the rules.” Dove cites Thierry Mugler’s gourmand Angel (£109 for a 100ml EDP refillable bottle) and earthy Terre d’Hermès (£80 for 100ml EDT) as groundbreakers of more recent decades. “That creativity carries the classics through.”
Edward Bodenham, perfumery director and ninth-generation member of the Floris family, also points to the ingredients that influence classic or modern styles. “Whereas classics rely on natural notes such as woods, mosses and florals, modern fragrances experiment with fruity, caramelised synthetic molecules,” he explains. Heavy use of synthetics also accounts for the “linear” behaviour of sprays that declare themselves instantly then stick to their guns for hours. Yet perfumers I’ve canvassed also believe that an absence of aggressive marketing and focus groupery separates unique classics from these Groundhog Day crowd-pleasers.
The thrill of bucking the market trend appealed to Christine Nagel when she assumed the role of exclusive perfumer creator at Hermès in 2014, with a challenging brief to produce a new version of her revered predecessor Jean-Claude Ellena’s equally fêted Terre d’Hermès. Nagel teased out the original, suede-like vetiver, spiking it with citrusy Sichuan pepper and under-ripe bergamot for its green crispness. Whereas Ellena’s Terre conjures sunbaked desert hues, Nagel’s Terre d’Hermès Eau Intense Vétiver (£89 for 100ml EDP) is a verdant oasis.
Nagel has also deftly carried through the soft leather theme that has defined saddlemaker Hermès’ fragrances since 1951, with Edmond Roudnitska’s sublime Eau d’Hermès (£85 for 100ml EDT) and Guy Robert’s silken Calèche (£123 for 100ml SDP) a decade later. “When I create a perfume, I often go and touch the materials in the atelier,” she tells me. “The details of the garments, such as pockets lined with exquisitely soft leather, are as precise on the inside as outside.” So it is with perfume: when ingredients meld smoothly, the effect is effortless.
A near-religious respect for harmony also links scents ancient and new at Guerlain. Now celebrating its 190th anniversary, this pillar of the perfume world produced Jicky (£105 for 100ml EDP) in 1889, the oldest “modern” perfume still in production and one of the first to use synthetic ingredients. According to current in-house nose Thierry Wasser, “before Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky, we were just mixing tuberose, rose and jasmine – all a little simplistic. Today, perfumers deal with an abstraction that speaks directly to the imagination.” Inevitably for a veteran scent, Jicky has undergone countless revisions to keep pace with ingredient restrictions. Yet the magic persists thanks to the Guerlinade – the recognisable soft floral, powdery, vanilla signature that also purrs at the base of his house’s newest arrival, Mon Guerlain (£62 for 50ml EDT).
“Heritage doesn’t always mean perfume has to be made in the old way,” asserts Bodenham, who is charged with ensuring his family’s near-300-year-old legacy sits comfortably with the 21st century. Launched this year, Floris 1927 (£140 for 100ml EDP) pairs two major scent tribes of the Roaring Twenties: the sparkling aldehydes of florals like Chanel No 5 with the woody, mossy base that made Chypré de Coty (now sadly defunct) a game-changer. Back in the day, the twain would never meet. Bodenham hit upon this feisty fusion upon noting that customers “bamboozled by mass marketing” increasingly took refuge in the house’s vintage fragrances, especially woody ones. His first attempt at time travelling fell oddly flat. ‘‘Because I used traditional techniques, it just didn’t have that modern edge. Then we tried an orange-rind aldehyde with the vanilla and the result was totally new,” he recalls.
Fizzy, fruity aldehydes are the umami of the fragrance world, prized for bursting open other ingredients, in much the same way as seasoning in cooking. In Roja Parfums Chypré Extraordinaire (£1,450 for 100ml parfum), they propel the fresh, bergamot fanfare that preludes the carnal tuberose heart. The peachy accents are a nod to Guerlain Mitsouko (£89.50 for 75ml EDP) from 1919, a long-time passion of Roja Dove’s. For the resinous, slightly churchy and subtly sexual sillage, Dove chose Amber 83, a base first blended in the 1920s and more often used in oriental perfumes: “I wondered what it would be like to work an ambery aspect into a classic chypre structure,” he says. “The background is so beautifully soft, it blurs any traces of dryness.” Dove’s love of chypres is persuasive. “Unlike showy orientals, they exude an understated inner strength. I wanted to create a ‘personal space’ fragrance for people who allow you near them, an idea of promise and not disclosing too much too soon,” he says. “Perfume should intrigue, like the urge to discover more about someone you meet. Scents you like instantly are also easily forgettable,” he maintains.
A slow-burning disclosure powers other scions of the chypre revival, such as Velvet (£400 for 100ml EDP), an exquisite chypre with a powdery rose and iris heart from Perfumer H Lyn Harris’s winter 2018 edition. With peppery-green galbanum, neroli, oakmoss and patchouli, Thai perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s Dusita Le Sillage Blanc (£168 for 50ml EDP) also pays homage to green chypre classics such as Balmain Vent Vert from 1947. Similarly, perfumer Pierre Aulas has garnered a tangle of earthy roots and damp moss from a Highland moor, then wrapped it in iris silk with Vétiver Moss (£175 for 75ml EDP), the green chypre offering from the stunning nature-inspired Alexander McQueen collection.
A mainstay of chypre fragrances, not to mention the scent of the 1960s, syrupy, woody patchouli is renewing its cult allure as partner in timeless mystique with incense, in some of the most darkly compelling scents. In the Olfactories Les Mirages collection, Prada exploits the 1960s riff with Some Velvet Morning (£220 for 100ml EDP; on sale next year), a peachy, vanilla glissando of patchouli-infused holy smoke; while Serge Lutens stirs it up with resinously thick fir balsam in Le Participe Passé (£160 for 100ml EDP). With typical opacity, Lutens declares that his scent evokes the time it takes to bring an idea into being.
By contrast, scents with sunshine in their soul hit the spot instantly, and this summer’s love affair with zesty, uplifting fragrances shows no sign of cooling. Master perfumer Michel Almairac, creator of modern classics such as Dior Fahrenheit (£54 for 50ml EDT) and L’Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses (£105 for 100ml EDT) exploits one of perfume’s most optimistic ingredients in orange blossom-infused Tomboy Neroli (£98 for 50ml EDP) from his independent Parle Moi de Parfum collection. Inspired by vibrantly fresh homemade lemonade laced with mint, the daily refresher Tom Daxon enjoyed while staying in Greece, his Laconia (£105 for 50ml EDP) is the Aegean Sea, bottled. Similarly, Atkinsons Mint & Tonic (£130 for 100ml EDP) with its mandarin, lime and ginger kick is a blue-sky stiffener for dreary days. Scents like these, based around invigorating cologne ingredients, transport us back 300 years to when eaux were considered therapy.
Romano Ricci promises an equally stimulating journey. The great-grandson of Nina Ricci, whose white-flower poem L’Air du Temps (£66 for 50ml EDP) of 1948 wafted a postwar breath of fresh air, upholds the giddy tradition with Liquid Illusion (£200 for 75ml EDP) from his Juliette Has A Gun collection. This is a near-narcotic fusion of heliotropin, used since the 19th century for its moreish almond aroma and silken, “lipsticky” iris butter – one of the noblest perfume legends in the palette. For all its allusions to bygone pleasure domes, Ricci’s “artificial paradise” has contemporary provocations too. “Heliotropin is an ingredient of ecstasy,” he explains. “Like a drug, perfume allows you to travel to a different place, and this transports me phantasmagorically to Breaking Bad,” he muses. A classic case of back to the future.