“I have no luck with classic perfumes,” confessed a friend. “My grandmother wore Jean Patou’s Joy, my mother loved Chanel No 5, but when I wear these fragrances, I feel as if I’m playing dress up.” She wondered why she completely missed the allure of fragrances that are widely considered to be iconic. It is easy to attribute it to personal tastes and associations, but I decided to embark on a classics challenge.
The French use the phrase grand parfum to describe fragrances that not only have symphonic complexity but also a distinguished heritage. Chanel No 5 (£67 for 50ml eau de parfum) is a quintessential example. Created in a remarkable collaboration between Coco Chanel and perfumer Ernest Beaux, it revolutionised the 1920s with its daring blend of aldehydes – manmade materials that smell starchy and metallic – and opulent floral essences. It is voluptuous, rich and heady. Today, on the other hand, we are no longer used to the strong burst of aldehydes, and the curves in perfumes — as on Hollywood actresses — are toned down.
As an introduction to the classics, No 5 is as challenging as Tolstoy’s War and Peace might be for someone unfamiliar with Russian literature. Nevertheless, exploring iconic perfumes is an adventure. With Guerlain’s Shalimar (£62 for 50ml eau de parfum, pictured far right), you can imagine what flappers might have smelled like in the Roaring Twenties. Rochas’s Femme (£30.50 for 100ml eau de toilette) created in 1943 is not just a beautiful fragrance – it is perfumer Edmond Roudnitska’s quest for beauty in wartime Paris. A child of a different decade, Christian Dior’s Poison (£54 for 50ml eau de toilette, pictured far left) gives a glimpse into the glitz and glamour of the 1980s.
The best way to develop a taste for the classics is via gradual exposure. For someone accustomed to only the fresh and radiant modern perfume style, certain iconic fragrances are easier to approach than others. For instance, Christian Dior’s Diorissimo (£66 for 50ml eau de toilette) was born in 1956, but its crystalline freshness is not out of place among many contemporary florals. Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche (£26.50 for 50ml eau de toilette) has a softer character. Ô de Lancôme (£34 for 75ml eau de toilette, pictured second from left) and Hermès’ Eau d’Orange Verte (£44 for 50ml eau de toilette, pictured third from left) are as classic as a little black dress and just as easy to wear.
Another way to appreciate the classics is to look for their modern interpretations. Many recent perfumes owe a debt to legendary fragrances – for example, Prada’s Infusion d’Iris (£45 for 40ml eau de toilette) to Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue (£52 for 50ml eau de toilette). Prada strips away all the powdery layers that make L’Heure Bleue magical but also a little difficult. Infusion d’Iris instead emphasises the velvety iris and wraps it in sheer incense. Even Chanel gave No 5 a new character to sway the next generation of perfume wearers. No 5 Eau Première (£77.50 for £75ml) tones down the sharpness of aldehydes and plays up the diaphanous layers of jasmine, rose and orange blossom.
In the end, my friend fell in love with Cacharel’s Anaïs Anaïs (£19.99 for 50ml eau de toilette), a perfume created in 1978. It is a bouquet of hyacinth, jasmine and lily of the valley with a milky twist of sandalwood. There is a tinge of aldehydes that gives the perfume a retro aura, but its shimmering, airy character is glamorous and au courant.