Grey Flannel (Geoffrey Beene / French Fragrances Formula)

In the case of Grey Flannel, I've come to the conclusion that it has never been a trendy fragrance. There is too much about it that goes against its own zeitgeist. In the 1970s, back when people had long hair and worshipped Halston and YSL, it wasn't a big deal to release something mean, clean, and bitter-green. People were into raw olfactory textures, and the louder it smelled, the better it was. So Grey Flannel must have been a monster back then, right?

Wrong. Judging by the way my Jacqueline Cochran bottle performs, the earlier incarnations of the Flannel were suave, smooth, refined, and downright gentlemanly. This stuff does not conjure images of Warren Beatty with a bare chest and fluffy Shampoo hair. It is more evocative of Roger Moore in, well, a grey flannel suit. My surprise at the Cochran formula is tempered by my knowledge of all that came after it - beautiful fresh ferns that put dry-woody notes (via dihydromyrcenol) to great use. So even though it doesn't smell like a child of the seventies, the early-eighties formula was at least inspirational.

I approached the French Fragrances formula expecting a distinct change-up in the scent. I have read Natasha's terrific comparison of the FF formula against the EA version, and figured my experience would mirror hers. I have to say though that my findings with the French Fragrances formula run quite contrary to hers. My 4 oz bottle of FF GF arrived a few days ago, and I've been trying to find the sharper, harsher notes that she detects in this version, particularly in the top accord. While the top is sharper, and smells very similar to the top of the current formula, it does not last long. Within five minutes it transitions into the same smooth, violet-sandalwood base of the Cochran formula. They are equal in richness and intensity. This is surprising, considering the possible 15 year gap between them.

This vintage is problematic because it presages the EA version by only a few years, and is also made by the same concern that currently produces Grey Flannel (FF bought EA and assumed its name). Finding the place where the smoother Sanofi formula ends and the pre-EA formula begins is probably impossible. I'm sure there's that one evolutionary bottle floating around out there that exhibits a perfect personality split between the two, but it is not in my possession.

I'm guessing from how the contents of my FF bottle smells that it's an older bottle, perhaps from '95 or '96. Several characteristics of Cochran's style are blatantly evident here, with an attenuated sample of the EA formula-to-come lurking in the first few minutes of the top notes. It's obvious that either Sanofi or FF changed things a bit, but I don't get an acrid sharpness, or any "plant that kills" effect. I get a very well balanced galbanum/lemon/violet leaf accord, similar to EA's, but a bit softer. Then, an oily violet/sandalwood accord, which smells pretty much identical to Cochran's base. This endures for hours before fading away to a clean, green glow. This leaves but one conclusion for the FF formula: it's a moving target. If you see it on Ebay or elsewhere, keep your expectations at bay, because you don't know what you might get.

Which brings me to my opening statement about Grey Flannel going against its own grain. The French Fragrances formula (and anything that came before) would likely do very well on today's market. But EA reformulated it into a sharper, meaner fragrance, adding more galbanum, accentuating the dry citrus, with a more complex violet leaf and a noticeably louder drydown. What is unclear is why they chose to go this route at a time when people are into smooth, woody-sweet stuff. The FF formula would have been popular in today's market, but in-house issues led to the change.

Meanwhile the Grey Flannel of yesterday, a pleasant chap in a snappy suit, floats about in an internet netherworld, occasionally surfacing for the price of coffee and a sandwich. Keep an eye out for him. He's someone you'll want to take to lunch.

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