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 lovely 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 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, keep your niche stuff. I know what I'm taking with me.