If modern perfumery has a presiding spirit, it is constant regeneration. More than 1,200 new scents were launched last year. Many were “flankers” – spin-offs of well-loved classics, destined to sink into obscurity after a brief season in the sun. Others may pass the critical three-year test to become fixtures in their label’s portfolio and – who knows? – the classics of the future.
According to market analysts, a scent’s enduring popularity is due in part to the loyalty of women over 40 who, having evolved a certain style, adopt fragrance as a signature rather than a disposable trend. Scent flirts are typically younger, hence the dilemma that faces perfume houses: how to appear new without losing the faithful along the wayside.
This year, several major designer classics have undergone rejuvenation, which it is hoped will see them safely into their next decade. At the eminent age of 93, the godmother of all designer perfumes Chanel No 5 (£68 for 50ml EDP) received a youth boost earlier this year, when its younger, lighter version, Eau Première (£68 for 50ml EDP), appeared in the same grown-up, cabochon-stoppered bottle, like a teenager allowed out in heels for the first time. Putting the two scents side by side on a design par is a symbiotic gesture; the doyenne seems cool again, while the new kid attains classic gravitas.
Amethyst (£53 for 50ml EDP), Lalique’s musky-blackberry juice, also has a new sibling. Seven years on, Amethyst Éclat (£40 for 30ml EDP) champions the peony, the Chinese bloom of wealth and beauty that’s only just discernible in the original scent. According to perfumer Nathalie Lawson, enhancing the poeny’s dewy rosiness makes the fruity notes fizz and sparkle. Over at Tom Ford, Velvet Orchid (£72 for 50ml EDP) is a boozy, extravagantly floral version of darkly vampish Black Orchid (£72 for 50ml EDP), the designer’s debut scent of 2006. Both share the intense rose absolute and vanilla signature, but whereas woods and spices characterised the original, Velvet Orchid’s sensual petals are glazed with nectar and rum, contrived to suggest skin on skin.
Having pioneered the trend for haute-couture fragrances as the antithesis of the identikit smells of the time, Giorgio Armani has worn the first of his Privé collection, Bois d’Encens (£155 for 100ml EDP), for the past 10 years. “Despite seeming intense, it shows itself to be light,” Armani observes. “I have always believed that a fragrance should be delicate, never aggressive – something that can be appreciated up close while leaving an unforgettable impression.” This gently smouldering evocation of swinging thuribles in the cool stone churches of his childhood now has an unashamedly carnal counterpart in Encens Satin (£155 for 100ml EDP). Less reassuringly woody, more luxuriantly spiced and infused with rose and honeyed immortelle, this new oriental nevertheless has an intense liveliness, thanks to two contrasting incense notes extracted at high pressure by molecular distillation. “Encens Satin is more voluptuous – a lasting marriage of scent and flesh,” explains Véronique Gautier, general manager of Giorgio Armani Fragrances, who oversaw its creation. “It shares the same minimal architecture, yet seems to radiate from the skin.”
If there’s a unifying thread running through these very modern “retro” scents, it’s an almost solar radiance – a deft marketing term that encompasses light, warmth and the lasting, shimmering intensity made possible by today’s technology. “Eau Première is what Chanel No 5 would have been, if it was made with today’s raw materials,” comments perfumer Roja Dove, in tribute to Chanel nose Jacques Polge. However, Dove is less enthusiastic about the covert updating of other perfume legends. For years, he wore Mitsouko (£77.50 for 75ml EDP), Guerlain’s exquisite liquid silken chypre from 1919. “Then, around five years ago, it seemed to have lost its complexity. Something was missing from that glorious woody, mossy base,” he recalls. Happily, thanks to Guerlain perfumer Thierry Wasser’s sensitive rebalancing, Mitsouko has relocated its mojo. But Dove’s own Roja (£2,500 for 100ml EDP) is the glorious riposte to an inconstant chypre that was once close to his heart.
That sinking feeling that your long-loved fragrance isn’t quite as true can no longer be brushed off as a trick of memory, or a faltering sense of smell. Even fragrance houses – once so careful to conceal shifts in their formulas – are beginning to concede that things are different. Since its inception in 1973, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the industry’s self-regulating body, has regularly restricted and banned traditional perfume ingredients that cause, research suggests, contact dermatitis in an estimated one to three per cent of the population. Now in its 47th amendment, the IFRA list (as perfumers call its Standards) bans 77 ingredients, limits the use of 100 and imposes strict purity requirements on a further nine, the majority of which are natural. By April next year, this “risk management” could be more extreme, as the European Commission will also seek to push through its own bans, including atranol and chloroatranol – both components of oak- and tree-moss that give chypre-style scents depth and longevity – as well as HICC (Lyral), a synthetic molecule that evokes lily of the valley.
It could have been worse. Alongside these proposed bans, a list drawn up two years ago by the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) originally recommended that nine other “pillar” ingredients – including eugenol, the clove note in rose oil, and citral, the scent of fresh lemons – should be severely restricted to trace levels of 0.01 per cent. However, although the EU still wants to limit the levels, it is now considering less stringent restrictions. Stephen Weller, IFRA’s director of communications, considers this to be “extremely reasonable”. To protect those with existing allergies, dermatologists on the SCCS wanted such strict limitations so the ingredients would be barely detectable, he reports. “Now the level will be set to allow the approximately 98 per cent of the population who aren’t already allergic to enjoy perfume with less risk.”
Nevertheless, the outrage among perfumers is palpable and conspiracy theories abound as to why an allergic fraction of the population should benefit from the majority’s loss of choice. Inconsistencies are questioned: why are anaphylaxis-inducing peanuts and the proven carcinogen tobacco smoke not banned? “If I peel an orange I’ll get more citral on my hands than I’d use in a perfume,” Jean Patou’s Thomas Fontaine protests.
With shrewd foresight, major perfume houses have been quietly adjusting their classics since the restrictions were first mooted in 2012. But whereas they can absorb the time and cost of mass reformulation, it’s a tougher prospect for niche labels. Frédéric Malle, who has just added Eau de Magnolia (£105 for 50ml EDP) – a fresh, lemony chypre by perfumer Carlos Benaïm – to his esoteric scent library, speaks bluntly. “Depending on the scent, it can take months to reformulate a fragrance – precious time that can’t be spent on creating new perfumes.”
At Jean Patou, Fontaine sees the loss of freedom to use distinctive, natural ingredients as a threat to perfumery’s integrity. While reviving classics such as Eau de Patou (£150 for 100ml EDP) for the house’s Collection Héritage, he strove to preserve the free-spirit of 1976 expressed by its citrus-rush, but has toned down its oakmoss base. “Regulations are changing all the time. If you only expect your scent to last a year, it’s not such a problem,” he says. “But can you expect your creation to be the same in two years’ time? This is a question of survival. If we have to use only synthetic ingredients in the future, French perfumery will die.”
Not all perfumers are dissenters, however. Embracing the future is Richard Fraysse, third-generation nose at the historic house of Caron, who has just edited Lady Caron (£105 for 100ml EDP), the fruity floral chypre he composed for the millennium. The original ingredients remain, but orchestrated at new concentrations to sublime effect. According to fragrance critic Michael Donovan, “bringing the jasmine and tuberose to the fore and laying the fruit discreetly in the centre has given it a more grown-up, classic relevance”.
In perfume, as in life, fast-paced technology polarises the old and new orders. When presenting My Burberry (£90 for 90ml EDP) to the press, the house’s new perfumer Francis Kurkdjian compared his use of new molecules to the spirit of Burberry’s Covent Garden beauty boutique, an emporium filled with digital innovations. “Today’s chemistry can recreate nature in a way you wouldn’t believe,” he says. Thus, My Burberry’s rain-drenched freesia, rose and golden quince bloom in fruity hyper-reality. “You have to capture l’air du temps and say something now,” Kurkdjian believes.
The latest fragrances under his Maison Francis Kurkdjian label hint at a brave new world to come. He calls the chemical petals that head Féminin Pluriel (£120 for 70ml EDP) “flou” – crushed blossom on a base of vetiver and patchouli but free of contentious oakmoss. The result is reassuringly familiar yet hard to pin down – and utterly suits the scent’s curious name. Yet Kurkdjian acknowledges that to be “understandable”, something about a scent has to be recognisable. “The flower is the perfect feminine cliché,” he says.
Kurkdjian’s ultimate aim was to create a post-modernist perfume, but with a timeless elegance that could make it a classic. He may well have succeeded. “A classic perfume is an adventure, not necessarily in terms of how it develops on skin, but where it takes you emotionally,” says Jill Hill, whose luxury company Aspects has, over the past 25 years, brought brands including Ferragamo, Versace and niche label Mark Buxton to the UK. “It starts with a single, distinctive, often polarising note that captures the imagination, such as cassis in Poison, chocolate in Angel or the ozonic accord in Eternity,” she adds.
“A future classic should have something new to say – an innovation that sets new standards in perfumery,” confirms James Craven, fragrance archivist at Les Senteurs, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “It is confident and characterful, like vanillin-rich Shalimar or Fracas’s outrageous tuberose.” For Gautier, the shock of the new must be tempered with reassurance. “If they are to tell a story that transverses decades, retro and modernity are both key to the new classics,” she says. “Perfume enhances personal identity, creating an aura against a tough world. It represents continuity against change.”
Meanwhile, Wasser’s response to change has been inspired. He has recreated 25 of Guerlain’s archive perfumes – some dating back to the late 19th century – in their original, handwritten formulas so that the modern versions can be compared. To sell these gems would now be illegal, but visitors to L’Osmothèque, the perfume conservatory in Versailles, can sniff them on blotters. A set also resides at La Maison Guerlain, the house’s emporium on the Champs-Elysées.
In the course of researching this article, I ripped the cellophane off box-loads of familiar names, saturating myself in drifts of nostalgia and frustration in equal measure, like glimpsing a ghost as it evaporates through a wall. As Dove puts it, “When you adulterate a perfume, you meddle with memories.” Yet I wonder what pleasure it would be to smell these still-exquisite scents for the first time without the baggage of association, as a new generation surely will. And which of today’s avant-garde will become tomorrow’s nostalgia? As Gautier shrewdly says, “Without the past, there can be no future.”
In Europe, not least, times are changing for perfume. In the meantime, come the referendum…