2/18/13

Oscar for Men (Oscar de la Renta)

A few months ago I did a review of a citrus chypre by Richard Herpin for Brooks Brothers called New York Gentleman, a decent fragrance that benefits from a few good raw materials, but falls far short of greatness due to a lack of complexity, and the unfortunate incorporation of cheap musk in its base. It's kind of hard to lambast New York Gentleman outright because comparatives are not only superior to it, but to most other masculines as well. To say that Eau Sauvage beats NYG is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But I spent a few weeks wondering whether another fragrance could step into NYG's shoes and do exactly what it does, using the exact same citrus-aromatic flourishes, except the way it should have been done by Herpin - i.e., without shortcuts. Then I came across Oscar de la Renta's second masculine fragrance, simply called Oscar for Men, and realized I'd found a match. In every way, Oscar is very similar to NYG, but it's much more complex, exhibits higher-quality raw materials from start to finish, and unsurprisingly smells more masculine and "outdoorsy." If I were a stuck-up prat, I'd call it an "aficionado's fragrance," but since it doesn't take an aficionado to appreciate anything that smells good, I'll settle for just calling it flat-out excellent.

Of course, this eau de toilette is not to be confused with Oscar de la Renta's first masculine, the infamous and much-loved Pour Lui. That 1980 release is a strong, macho, leathery-green machine that takes no prisoners and crashes head-on into the eighties powerhouse aesthetic. For an in-depth take on Pour Lui, see the terrific review on Pour Monsieur. Oscar for Men is also reviewed there, and I concur entirely with Shamu1's spot-on assessment of it. This is a beautiful fragrance, and quality-wise I put it in the same league as Edmond Roudnitska's citrus-chypres and fresh-fern masterworks.

Oscar for Men sits at a place equidistant from Cacharel Pour L'Homme and Marc Jacobs Bang. Like those fragrances, Oscar is a citrus-woody aromatic, but brace yourself: I move to officially label it a citrus chypre, due to a hesperidic presentation in its top notes, followed by a peppery, floral sweetness in the heart, and a mossy-woody base. Whether or not oakmoss or treemoss is used is a bit of a mystery, as Oscar's packaging offers what appears to be an abbreviated ingredients list (IFRA compliant it's not), but I feel there's at least a little treemoss in there. Labdanum is also not obviously present, but the way Oscar's pine and cedar notes play against each other fills its heart with an earthy, slightly skanky sweetness that reminds me of the funky edge to Eau Sauvage. Also similar to ES is Oscar's Italianate bergamot and elemi resin, very bitter and fresh-green. These aspects of Oscar make its classification seem easy enough, and it only gets easier as it develops on skin.

The real key to Oscar's success is its complexity, and how each note is intentionally used for the purpose of keeping its movements smooth and congruent. Brooks Brothers NYG was constructed on what I believe was a very tight formula budget, and for some reason Herpin decided that blowing the bulk of his cash on top-shelf bergamot extracts and a minuscule quantity of high-grade vetiver oil would make up for a distinct absence of anything else. Its movement is clunky; NYG opens with a very fruity-fresh burst of citrus that sustains itself for an inordinately long time, thanks to synthetics, and then abruptly shifts into vetiver, with the two stages held together by a discreet musk note. From that mid-stage vetiver, things go downhill, and the base is little more than a laundry-fresh washout, very chemical and "clean cotton-T." There isn't much in the way of floral or earthy notes to lend depth or complexity, aside from a bit of peppery carnation. But not to fear - Oscar shows us how it's done. Its citrus, mostly bergamot, is crisp, fruity, fresh, but soft, and transient relative to NYG's (expect three minutes from it). Almost immediately the elemi resin is apparent, with a sweet piney freshness that rapidly leads to a distinct pine and black pepper accord. An hour later the evergreen notes adopt a woodier tone, and a very dry nutmeg note is detectable. Bristling behind it is cedar and subtle musk.

The opening accord of citrus and elemi is smoothly conjoined by cool clove. The heart and base accords of pine, black pepper, and cedar are quietly brushed together with nutmeg and musk. Each note works in harmony with its neighbor, and together they form one brilliant and shimmering accord of chypre-green freshness. But there's more to Oscar's beauty than meets the nose at first sniff - upon subsequent wearings, it becomes evident that its lemony-bergamot intro is underpinned by a soft jasmine-like floral effect, perhaps via hedione, or even a smidgen of calone. A brisk lavender note also comes forward in the final minute or so of the top accord, and helps the citrus segue into peppery resins. How the nose behind Oscar for Men managed to get that pepper note to last for seven hours at a stretch is anyone's guess. The same synthetics that are used with Brooks Brothers' citrus, and the pepper in Marc Jacob's Bang, are perhaps employed here, but Oscar is much richer and better blended than either of the others. This really is a piece of well-oiled manliness, one that imparts casual sophistication.

Oscar for Men was released in 1999, but it doesn't resemble your typical fresh-sweet wuss-fests from that decade, and leans closer to the old-guard French proclivities of the sixties and seventies. If I were asked to do a blind sniff test of Oscar and Eau Sauvage, and then were asked which is older, I'd say they're the same age. How this passed me by in college I'll never know, but I'm glad to have a bottle now. It's also nice to know that three ounces of Oscar can be had for twenty dollars, which makes it a better value than the significantly more expensive Brooks Brothers. I can't tell you to eschew Eau Sauvage, Moustache, Diorella, Monsieur Balmain, YSL Pour Homme, or any of the other great twentieth century citrus compositions in favor of Oscar for Men, but I strongly recommend placing it among them in your collection, and awarding it "Best in Show" as a pristine example of how the standard set by its predecessors has been, despite the odds, deliberately and successfully adhered to.















6 comments:

  1. Really interested to try this. I've been looking for a Eau Sauvage like frag and I love Bang. Cheap too boot! SOunds like a perfect trifecta.

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    1. It's a good fresh, peppery chypre. Absurdly cheap. Give it a try when you have a chance and tell me what you think.

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    2. Finally got a chance to try this today and I have to say I was disappointed. I guess I was expecting more from it. Eau Savage just has a distinct signature and I'didn't find this that unique. It has that pencil shaving woody scent that reminds me of this Tommy Bahama cologne I have. It's not awful but I didn't find it that special either. Sprayed Lui on the other hand and that one is really great. Definitely thinking of picking it up.

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    3. Yeah Lui will probably go down as Oscar D's best. I agree Eau Sauvage is better than Oscar for Men, but I think you and I may have had an inverse experience with it - I approached it with fairly low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. That pencil shaving effect might be the overdose of black pepper in there. Give it a few full wearings and see how you feel, it grew on me more and more, with an interesting citrus-floral effect in the far drydown.

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  2. Interesting stuff. I've been toying for some time (coming back to YSL repackaging/pricing issues that also afflict Rive Gauche) with getting hold of one of the old red-topped bottles of YSL Pour Homme while it's cheap, but I'm slightly twitchy as it would be a blind buy and I've heard enough people moaning about how skanky it smells to be wary. I was hoping YSL Pour Homme might square the circle between Chanel Pour Monsieur (expensive) and Eau Sauvage (which I like, but which seems to go to nothing on my skin very quickly). I'll now give this some thought too.

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    1. If you like Eau Sauvage and Chanel PM, but are worried about the possible "Skank Factor" of YSL PH, here's what I suggest you do first, and if you haven't already smelled it: get Rochas Moustache in the round ribbed bottle. It's also an Edmond Roudnitska fragrance and it's related to Eau Sauvage in that it's very citric and very classical French in form and movement. It's also, unlike ES, a fougere, and a bit older than ES. ES has its own funky edge, but Moustache is significantly more sweaty and smells even edgier. If you like Moustache and aren't put off by its unusual sweatiness, you should be fine with YSL PH. Moustache has the added benefit of being really cheap.

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