9/21/11

Grey Flannel (Geoffrey Beene)

In the past ten years or so, niche perfumery really launched itself onto the world stage. This worried me, as most niche fragrances are only affordable if you refinance your home and send your kids to a trade school instead of college. In my experience, niche scents smell better, mainly because they're more complex than mainstream frags and made with high quality ingredients. Ideally, I would never shop at Marshalls again, and stock my wardrobe with Creed and Czech & Speake until the day I die. That could still happen, but I have to win the lotto first.

Fortunately, there's a mainstream masculine out there that smells like a niche scent, and only costs $15 for a 4 ounce bottle. Grey Flannel is a modern marvel because when André Fromentin formulated it in the early '70s, he had successfully tackled one of the most difficult concepts in perfumery - the dreaded violet reconstruction. Back when it was released in 1976, Grey Flannel boasted a great big violet/violet leaf wallop that was both ethereal and against the grain. It stepped from a pantheon of leathers and bombastic orientals, and stood apart. The original formula survived for the better part of the '80s, before it was discontinued in the early '90s. One could argue that Grey Flannel's last production date was a sad one indeed.

Except it wasn't. In 1996, Beene's flagship scent was reformulated and re-released. Usually reformulations strip something vital out of an old-school perfume (oak moss has been under the knife for a while now, particularly in newer versions of feminine '70s chypres), but with Grey Flannel, things were different. There were new technologies and a broader range of aroma chemicals with which to compose violet notes, and so the central accord in Grey Flannel wasn't butchered, but in fact improved. Instead of smelling harsh and "perfumey" the violet note was smoothed out, flanked by complimentary accords of citrus and moss, and allowed to breathe.




Grey Flannel's current manufacturer, Elizabeth Arden Fragrances, boasts a note pyramid with multiple spices, flowers, and woods. Yet I really don't smell anything other than the basic structure of this chypre. The top is a dessicated lemon accord, bone dry to the point of almost smelling woody. Once that impeccable citrus lifts, moss-studded violet leaves arrive, ushering along with them the truly lovely and slightly powdery violet note. Although the sweetness of the flower peeks through the dank shade of the leaves, it never develops into the sugary floral caricature found in many feminine releases these days. It stays bitter, and very green. Everything is set against a coriander and oak moss background, until the notes fade in the drydown, leaving oak moss close to the skin.

I'm fairly sure that Grey Flannel is as close as I'll ever get to the coveted Holy Grail perfume. It has everything I want - simplicity, freshness, greenness - and all for pennies. I have yet to find anything that touches the beauty of Grey Flannel, although there's little doubt in my mind that Pierre Bourdon paid homage to it when he developed Green Irish Tweed some ten years after the Beene's initial release. I suppose one could complain of a perceptible "soapiness" to the Flannel, but once you get past the '70s zeitgeist aspect of virtually any late 20th Century chypre, you're left with the freedom to smell like flowers without fearing social repercussions. With this particular floral chypre, you can dress in a suit, spritz some violets on, and conquer the day as 100% pure and unadulterated Man.

When the aliens do come to save our desolate planet, you can keep your niche stuff. I know what I'm taking with me.




Photo by Tom Curtis.


























20 comments:

  1. I love Grey Flanel. I just bought my first bottle, after smelling a sample. I liked it from the first whiff, but was also shocked that something so cheap can be of such high quality. Just today my wife fished it out of my little frag collection, smelled it, and came running out, gushing about how incredible it was. That's a first.

    Love your reviews. You're a great writer. Keep it up.

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  2. I'm with you all the way on GF. It smells better and is more unique than just about any niche scent I've tried (exceptions being Parfum d'Habit and Knize Ten, for me). Grey Flannel is an incredible fragrance, and the reason I love it is the drydown. Few other fragrances create the amazing green haze that GF does with the oakmoss, violet leaf and sandalwood. Only Tsar comes close.

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    1. Indeed, Tsar might be the only classic masculine to touch Grey Flannel at the present time. It's definitely hard to beat the drydown of either scent. Funny how little traction these scents have with the younger set. Give me a cool green over those sugary gourmands any day.

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  3. Another brill review, Bryan.

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  4. A question from one GF wearer to another: do you notice a difference in scent b/w the aftershave lotion and the EDT, or am I the only one? I wear both, and I find that though it smells like both share exactly the same ingredients and notes, the A/S highlights notes that are a little less prominent in the EDT, and vice versa. Although I don't find GF to be even remotely sweet, in the A/S I can smell the coumarin, whereas in the EDT I can barely detect it at all, even though I know it's there. Also, I find the A/S brings out the mossy smell a little more. In the EDT, the violet leaf is stronger, and has a peppery smell.

    BTW, the aftershave is a great thing to use as a lighter version of Grey Flannel. It's not as strong as the EDT (few frags are) and it doesn't last 16 hours like the EDT does. I like it as a casual scent to splash on before I go to bed. I would NEVER do that with the EDT!

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    1. You know what? I've never actually tried the aftershave, at least not in the sense that I've used it - it's possible I've worn it before but never really noticed a difference between the two scents. In recent years I've avoided the aftershave because I'm a little sensitive to that much mossiness being on my face and neck. I prefer to wear GF on my body and let the scent waft up from there. But it's interesting that you've noticed the difference between these formulas. It's a serious fragrance with tons of versatility, and I'll never understand why people balk at wearing it. Without Grey Flannel we wouldn't have Green Irish Tweed, that's for sure.

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    2. Hey, a quick query...What A/S do you wear with GF? I've been wearing it a lot lately, and have considered the Grey Flannel aftershave to complete the experience (I just generally enjoy aftershaves), but the EDT is so strong by itself that I'm kind of afraid to double up... I also feel that, like many dynamic projectors with strong synthetics, GF is better experienced at a 'wafting' distance, away from the face, as you note above. Do you recommend anything a little lighter that harmonizes?

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    3. Gillette Cool Wave isn't too bad w/GF. However, I use the GF aftershave and find it's pretty toned down compared to the EDT. I recommend getting the matching aftershave. It's pretty much GF sans oakmoss with a lighter violet note, generally much more transparent. I'm pretty susceptible to overbearing aftershaves and thus far haven't had an issue with this one.

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  5. Great review on Grey Flannel (funny we always think that reviews we agree with are great). It is one of those fragrances often labeled "old man" (whatever that f*****g means). I wore it in my early twenties and revisited it now in my 40s and it is still great. The flames launched at this on sites such as basenotes baffles me.

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    1. Old men, like young men, do tend to favor certain things more exclusively than others . . . Skin Bracer gets a lot of love with the over-65 crowd. But the irony is, that doesn't make Skin Bracer smell like an old man - it makes the old man smell like Skin Bracer, and therefore quite good. Grey Flannel is simply a fragrance that deserves more respect and doesn't get it because people expect instant gratification from everything nowadays, including their fragrances. If you want a sycophantic sugar-daddy perfume, go try something by Hugo Boss or Dunhill. If you want a classic chypre (Turin calls it a fougere, which it most certainly isn't, and I don't care if it has coumarin in it or not), that sideskirts all the "fun" stuff and still smells amazing, go for this. By the way, I've read on other blogs that this scent's reformulation is atrocious. It may be a trifle bit less satisfying than prior formulations, but it still smells excellent, and better to the versions found before its discontinuation in 1996, thanks to improved violet reconstruction technologies. Another rumor is that there is no violet in Grey Flannel, only violet leaf - patently false. There is indeed a quiet little violet paired with the leaf, and both are ingeniously muted by that strange citrus, and a healthy dollop of bitter oakmoss, which according to the box is still real, and very much part of Grey Flannel's formula.

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    2. Cool, thanks! I found a supplier for it that's pretty reasonable, so I'm in.

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  6. My guess, though, is that these men wore Skin Bracer when they were young. Men, in general, especially of our fathers' generation, had a good deal of brand loyalty (Dixie Peach pomade, Gleem toothpaste, Old Spice). I resist the notion of an inherently "old man" or "old lady" fragrance (not that you are saying that, but others seem to). It either smells great, as Grey Flannel or Pour Un Homme do, or it doesn't. Anyway, I just discovered your blog and am enjoying your even-keeled approach to niche, mainstream and cheapie masculines.

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  7. I wonder if Grey Flannel was the inspiration for Tom Ford's Grey Vetiver?
    To me they smell quite similar.

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  8. Well this is interesting... I purchased a splash bottle (a big one) online, thinking it would be older juice, but it's not! They're still making 8OZ splash bottles of Grey Flannel in those little (or not so little) bags! At least it seems to be newer... No oak moss listed on the ingredients tally, but still really quite nice. I think that the splash bottle is certainly the way to go with this scent, as this way I get none of the 'harshness' some reviewers ascribe to the top. One question: there is a great little dissection of this on the Barrister & Mann blog in which the reviewer guesses at the use of veramoss/Evernil in the composition. Would something like that show up on a label, or can it be left off, assuming it is not an allergen? I've had a few things now (current formulations of Sung Homme, Eau Sauvage or Caron's Third Man) that smell mossy, but have no ingredients indicated on the list that indicate an oakmoss approximate.... Do you know if it is it just a question of it being unlisted?

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    1. Synthetic oakmoss would not show up on the label. Typically the labels list only the "allergens" that IFRA regs require to be disclosed. My relatively recent (5 yr old) bottle of Mitsouko has no oakmoss, and to read its ingredients list, you would think there was no moss in there at all, yet it smells like it has at least a little moss. That's probably the Evernyl substitute, which is technically a molecular match for the real thing without the unpredictable "complexities" that exist in natural materials. Kind of like a lab-grown diamond vs the real thing.

      I read the blog post you mentioned and was disturbed to read that longevity in the latest formula is lacking. Is this true? The only bottles I have are vintage (as in they all have significant amounts of oakmoss, including that EA one I complained about back in 2011 or 2012). I recently spotted a sans-oakmoss Grey Flannel at my local Sears and was considering getting it, I think they only wanted $10 for it and it was 4 ounces. Maybe I'll stop by there this weekend and pick it up, just to see if the longevity is a factor now, and also to see if they treated the oakmoss component as well as Guerlain did in Mitsouko. I'm heartened to read that you find it competent, from Beene I expect nothing less!

      I had one beef with that Barrister & Mann post, btw - I disagree that Eau de Grey Flannel is "icky." Sure, it's quite inferior to the original, but as far as woody "fresh" scents go, it's actually not that bad. It has a decent ozonic violet leaf effect, coupled with a bit of a star anise and musk. Worth checking out, and I think it's been discontinued. I haven't seen a physical bottle in stores for years now.

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  9. [A quick sorry in advance if this post is a duplicate... My computer crashed after trying to post the first time.]

    Thanks for that quick and thorough reply... it is more of less what I expected. As for longevity,...If you come across my review on Fragrantica, you'll read me going on about the wonders of the splash bottle, how it softens the opening 'blast' people complain about with GF, and makes the delicacy of the opening notes more discernible... What I didn't say is that I am so out of practice with splash bottles that I dabbed it on pretty cautiously, erring on the side of less rather than more. All I can say is that I cannot imagine what that reviewer was thinking! It is very, very strong, and, as I type this, has lasted a ten hour work day (one with more than a few exertions), and four hours since. It's mostly a skin scent now, but I got at least five hours of nice projection out of it... My bottle looks to be from 2017.

    Anyway, please do buy that new bottle and post a review of the revision. I still think it's quite good, and am not at all horrified to think of having to lightly dab my way through the big 8OZ bottle sitting on my bathroom counter.

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    1. John, I went to buy that bottle at Sears and it was gone. While I'm sad that I missed my chance with that one, I'm glad people are still buying Grey Flannel. I'll probably order a bottle off Amazon in the near future. The only issue there is that there's no way of knowing what vintage I'll get. The sans oakmoss version is the current stuff but I think it's only been around two or three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if I got an older stock, so I'm still keeping a look out for a bottle in a store. Always good to read the box before buying!

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    2. Well, good luck! Personally, I think this 8oz splash is one of the best fragrance buys I've ever made...I can pick up some great notes here, notably what smells like a grassy vetiver and a delicate narcissus. There is also a terrific cooling/warming sensation that I really had not detected before, and, once I got my head around the dosage, I found it really uplifting for work. But what is it about splash bottles? I recall your dialoguing with some guy about the little splash bottles (2 OZ?) of GF some time back... And Ericrico on Fragrantica (that guy who uses the Rimbaud picture for his avatar), who can be pretty rhapsodic, but has certainly put in the miles, is always saying that splashes are the way to go with Caron Pour un Homme to avoid a fussy, 'stacked' spraying method. Could it have something to do with the way the lighter topnote molecules (citruses or lavender, for instance) stick around a little longer? All I know is, the opening notes in the splash are not 'harsh' at all, which is not the impression I got from a vaporizer of the 2014 GF a couple of years ago. I'm not a huge collector by any means, but I think it's one of the nicest compositions in my collection.

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