The Elusive Fougère, Part One

Few fragrance families have befuddled, confused, eluded, even angered men as frequently as the fougère has, which is worth mentioning because it's one of the most common types of masculine fragrance out there. It only befuddles fragheads of course, those of us who are far more interested in perfume than the average guy who reaches for his one bottle of Gucci Guilty and wears it without a second thought. An example of just how laborious it can be for us to understand the genre can be found in this thread, which dissects its history a bit, and then ponders what exactly a fougère should smell like. The OP asserts that it is "not beautiful," and "if you get too much of it, it can be even nauseating," which is at odds with my own experience, but then again I've been known to have an uncommonly tough tummy.

Here is my assertion: the fougère is basically a fresh, somewhat floral, somewhat woodsy, slightly mossy/musky concoction that in traditional format smells stereotypically "barbershoppy." Lavender and coumarin are the main players, but the handling of both notes can vary, even among traditional ferns. Nevertheless, all share a uniquely powdery, talc-like quality, with a lukewarm coumarin adding ambery heft and depth to an otherwise evanescent herbal structure. The fougères pictured above are a visual answer to the question, "What is a fougère?" If you own and wear at least three of those six fragrances, you fully understand what a fougère is, and if Drakkar is one of them, you also understand the basic aromatic fougère fairly well.

So why all the questioning? I suspect some guys have an unintentionally poor olfactory grasp of one or more of the key notes, which may or may not create an unnecessary sense of mystery. I attribute this to natural causes, a physical inability to detect a specific scent. For example, I know at least a couple of people who are anosmic to lavender. When faced with lavender, alternative adjectives are used to describe it, rather than just identifying it as lavender: it's "camphorous," it's "minty," it's "laundry musk." Contemporary perfumery methods have allowed perfumers to extend the life of lavender on skin by a considerable length of time, beyond the forty-five seconds you might get from dabbing pure oil mixed with perfumer's alcohol on skin. Missing the central lavender chord may ruin fougères for some people.

Another problem may be unfamiliarity with the similarities old-school ferns share. If your three frags of experience are Caron Pour un Homme, Drakkar, and Brut, I can understand that it would be hard to find their common link. There's still an experiential vacuum with ferns there. Add Pinaud's Clubman, Mennen Skin Bracer, and Canoe to the mix, and suddenly there's a familiar shape in the air. Take for example the musky talc drydown of Brut, Clubman, and Canoe, each very "barbershop" in their own right. Alone, their fragrances are anomalies compared to what's currently under glass in department stores these days, but together they're like triplets after a particularly trying birth - similar enough to be unmistakably siblings, but each with a slightly different face. Familiarity with all three ensures the confusion factor is minimal.

And while I'm discussing the confusion factor, I should add that contemporary releases generally eschew the conventions of old-school ferns, in favor of more aromatic and gourmand nuances. Compare Canoe to Bleu de Chanel and you see what I mean. One could argue that it's silly to say fougères are alien to guys, given their iconic status, but "iconic" can be synonymous with "forgotten." Just today I visited a local brick and mortar shop that carries dozens of hard-to-find masculines, and asked the owner for a bottle of Canoe. I didn't even bother looking at his shelves, I figured he'd hear the name, immediately know it, and simply hand it to me. After all, Dana frags are found in every drugstore across America.

I was in for a surprise - the guy had no idea what I was talking about. He's been in business for twenty years, is roughly sixty years old, and he gave me a blank, confused stare. I went to his shop and not a Rite-Aid or CVS because I figured that unlike the big-boxes, he would have a wider variety of sizes (I was looking for an eight-ounce bottle). I had to spell "Dana" for him. He eventually found it on his smartphone and showed me a picture to confirm the item, then apologized, saying it was out of stock. Indeed, he had English Leather and one or two other obscure Dana items on a shelf, but no Canoe. So it's getting to the point in America where cornerstone masculines like Canoe are not even being stocked in independent perfume outlets.

In the thread linked above, a Parfumo member named "LovingTheAlien" wrote, "I decided to blend myself what I had learned from various sources to be the building blocks of a 'real' vintage fougère: Oakmoss (my own tincture!), Tonka Bean (my own tincture again), a little amber (in place of labdanum, which I don't have), sandalwood (Mysore tincture - also mine), a light floral blend (jasmine and rose, a tiny bit of each), lavender (another tincture), bergamot, and a teensy touch of (regrettably) synthetic musk. It came out kind of muddled - something was weird. It had a spicy sweet edge, something like a fougère, but something was missing. A little investigation, and a drop (well, smallish tacky glob) of patchouli was added. And there it was: Pinaud Clubman, Avon Wild Country, Dana Ambush, and Canoe!"

He presciently added, "The 'aromatic fougère' genre certainly spans a large range of finished products, from the still very fougère-like Azzaro Pour Homme to the baffling Dali Pour Homme (one of my favorites), which emphasizes the metallic leathery quality of tonka with castoreum and plays with all kinds of bitter green notes in the top. I can still smell the fougère accord in most of these scents - it's kind of impossible to hide if you know what you're looking for, it seems!" I agree, the accord is unmistakable, but that doesn't change the fact that it's only unmistakable to those who can accurately discern the notes that comprise it, a major issue for some.

But knowing the fougère accord isn't essential to understanding what a fougère is. It's more important to recognize the traditional fougère's general scent profile - is it spicy, powdery, balmy, green, woody, or sweet? Is it all of those things? If so, what is it more of? In my opinion, it's more powdery than anything else. My nose is sensitive to the talc effect in the bases of these compositions, so when I smell that clean powder essence, I know I'm dealing with either a straight-up traditional fern, or something derived from it, like Royal Copenhagen. I'm also pretty good at detecting lavender, so for me there's an early warning sign that a fougère is in use. Essentially this combination of lavender and powder is universal to the classical fern.

The final frontier, and perhaps most daunting aspect of understanding ferns, is in assessing the aromatic variants, which take the classical structure and condense it, then surround it with additional notes, usually notes that fit each of the scent profile categories. They're much more complex and subject to change, these aromatic ferns, and therefore are often harder to define. I think fragrances like Azzaro PH, Paco Rabanne, and Drakkar are suitable gateways to the aromatic fougère, because their "barbershop" qualities are still prominent, and they show the progressive advance of dihydromyrcenol in masculine compositions. Even Kouros and Jazz hold some semblance of citrus aftershave and talc dust, enough to connect them to the family tree. Once you establish that the antiseptic citrus/lavender accord can be twisted around any make and model of coumarin, the sky is truly the limit.

Lastly comes the more amusing question that sometimes crops up, the plea to define "barbershop" as it pertains to scent. Some guys know what it means when you say, "It smells like a barbershop frag," but others are instantly lost. Either they went to a different barber, or they always cut their own hair. Or perhaps their culture is one where using talc and aftershave is rare. Barbershops across America use talcum powder after a close cut or shave, usually to dry out and soothe skin. I've been to barbers who used Clubman talc, and I've been to barbers who used Pinaud After-Shave Talc. I've even been to barbers who used baby powder, disguised by an unmarked tin. That powder is the essence of the barbershop scent, a dry, diffuse, slightly floral aroma, evocative of summer afternoons and rides in dad's car.

Peruse the Parfumo thread for some additional thoughts on the role of gender and personal taste in recognizing fougères, and consider this - fougères have been around since the dawn of perfumery itself. To know one fougère is to know a piece of history. To avoid fougères is to subjugate yourself to the pitfalls of attempting to live around a massive, maw-like hole in your education.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great piece; I especially like the slightly homely real-world photograph of those unassuming fougeres -- the Caron in particular looks quite humble. I was glad to see it there, though, as I've read people arguing that it is not a fougere (a soliflore instead) which, given the criteria you describe above, seems to be missing a lot of content. I see now that Caron has launched a parfum formulation of Pour un Homme (purportedly just a repackaging of their old PuH extrait, 'Impact') and Fragrantica has billed it as an 'aromatic fougere.' I'll be curious to try it, especially as my newest bottle (a commemorative anniversary edition for 2014 in a lovely little metallic bottle) definitely has stronger accords of lavender, amber and vanilla than the 6.7 oz from 2011 I've just polished off. I suppose this might be adjustments for the increased IFRA limitations of coumarin that occurred sometime between 2011 and 2014 (I think it was 2013). But is the whole line being tweaked in a slightly more aromatic direction I wonder?


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