The Elusive Fougère, Part Two

One might exclaim, "Everything's a fougère to some people," and still be right about it. That is, if discussing masculine fragrance is the context of such a statement, in which case it's true that many guys identify contemporary (2005 - 2014) or near contemporary (1985 - 2005) fragrances as fougères, if anything at all. When in doubt, call it a fougère, right? As long as it has lavender and something woodsy in the composition, you might as well.

I disagree with this, though. A glance at the Leffingwell chart reveals that fougères are a relatively small category next to chypres, which seem to overwhelm the gender bracket. The fragrances that "charted" in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are distributed across the board, with no obvious favoritism toward fougères, at least as far as Michael Edwards' input is concerned. But what about the masculines that fell through the cracks? What about obscure things like Joint for Men by Roccobarocco? Or Green Generation Him by Pino Silvestre? Or Vermeil For Men? Or even the odd niche scent like Chergui by Lutens?

Questions like this get to the heart of why we bother culling fragrances into categories at all. Take Joint, for instance. From the atomizer nozzle before spraying, the lavender note is obvious, an intensely gummy, "fresh" sort of lavender, similar to that of Cool Water and Drakkar, but woodier and heavier. Spray it, and lavender meets civet, with the latter note balancing the freshness over a chasm of brown, earthy notes. Fragrantica's pyramid is wrong about this fragrance - lavender should be noted. Joint was discontinued decades ago, likely because it was underfunded and not made as well as it should have been, but it sticks out as an example of a "busy" composition that could throw people with lavender anosmia off track. I've seen people compare Joint to Kouros, which is an aromatic fougère of the early eighties, and which has a prominent lavender note (to the point where it's been argued that Kouros should be called a "baroque masculine lavender scent"), so I'm not alone in my opinion here, although I don't really smell any similarity to Kouros, other than both scents having lavender.

I happen to like Joint a lot, but my taste is admittedly unusual. Having worn it now for quite a while, I can say that its drydown, a full fifteen minutes after application, is decidedly "musty." This brings up another weird term I've seen bandied around on forums: the "old man smell." You've seen it, I've seen it, we've all seen it before, young guys calling an older fragrance "old-mannish," the ultimate put-down. For years I've wondered what it means, because the few old men I've encountered smelled of either nothing at all, or some basic aftershave like Skin Bracer, which actually smells good.

It wasn't until I wore Joint that I recognized a fragrance that my inner child called "old mannish." It dries to a musty, brown paper baggy labdanum/amber/synthetic musk accord that is equal parts delightful and questionable. I enjoy it, but questions persist - why does it thin down to a stale smell? Was it intentional? Or can a fragrance really degrade this much and still be wearable? It was Hednic on Basenotes who said that Joint smells very "generic and synthetic." I partially agree - it does smell synthetic, but not generic. All the fundamental parts of a fougère are there (alone, the accord is generic), with the buzzy lavender on top, tobacco/hay-like coumarin in the heart, and poisonous, mouldy musk in the base. Despite having generic fougère components, it could easily be confused with orientals or chypres from its era! Now that it's gone, I suppose you can call it whatever you like, but I wouldn't do that. That a perfume is extinct is no reason to erase its identity!

The same goes for forgotten gems like Vermeil or Green Generation Him. In recent months Vermeil has begun to smell mintier to me in its top notes, a tough call to make. Those who can't smell lavender (or who chronically misidentify it) call it "mint," which is not in itself an inaccurate term, since lavender is a type of mint, and can smell intentionally minty sometimes. If you want lavender as lavender, wear Drakkar. If you want the same lavender note as mint, wear Taxi. Where the first fragrance uses the note in a conventional dihydromyrcenol plus linalool fashion, the second takes the linalool and spools it around other 10 carbon alcohols to form a sort of "green bath soap" accord, smooth and clean without being overtly herbal. I get this sprightly mint effect off the top of Vermeil, itself frequently compared to the original Davidoff from 1984, but despite that mintiness, it still reads as lavender upon closer inspection, perhaps because it joins a soft floral chord in the early drydown phase.

You won't find Vermeil for Men on the Leffingwell. No one bothered to classify it when it was released - whenever that was. Where the fragrance and its packaging is manufactured is one of the great mysteries of the modern world. Yet I believe that it bears consideration to call it a fougère, simply because by classifying a forgotten masculine, its roots in the interconnected tree of masculines are made one with the congruent whole. It is no longer a detached, elusive scent, but part of fragrance history, worthy of note. It has a name that goes beyond branding.

It's tempting to cross the term "fougère" off the wall forever and just stick with more amorphous language, perhaps inventing one's own definitions, none of which would be "wrong" in an official sense, but I consider this to be the sort of thinking that makes understanding fougères so tricky. It seems that once people step beyond the fragrances that are inarguably fougères (Brut, Canoe, Clubman) and shuffle a bit afield of early aromatics (Paco Rabanne, Azzaro PH, Drakkar), consensus of what is and isn't a fern weakens. Arguments and heated discussions begin. From 2005 onward, it's clear that there's even a bit of a backlash against calling anything a fougère.

There is one fragrance however that slipped past the censors and landed the coveted title: Rive Gauche Pour Homme from 2003, one of the newest extant ferns. Distinctive for its powdery patchouli and talcum drydown, with a vaguely Drakkar-ish lavender/star anise up front, this fougère's identity was never seriously challenged, and was actually celebrated as being one of the few remaining examples of the genre. I really like Rive Gauche and have an older tin can version of it, but I do believe it is very, very similar to a slew of cheaper drugstore ferns. Its lavender is similar to Lomani Pour Homme's, almost identical really, and its spiced Barbasol heart accord is more or less Canoe. It winds up smelling like clean powder, which is never a mind-blowing effect, but is always reassuring in its staid masculinity. The only other fern released in the last twenty years that comes close to unanimous approval from guys on forums is the little-known Patrick by Fragrances of Ireland.

I suggest that anyone still confused about fougères, and what makes a fougère a fougère, should go to a perfume shop and smell Rive Gauche in tandem with drugstore ferns like Drakkar, Canoe, and Clubman. You'll be taking a fragrance that is only twelve years old and connecting it to fragrances that are many decades older. At the very least, you'll come to an understanding of how solid the combination of notes actually is, and why so many masculines draw on that classic accord for inspiration.

I just want to add one more thing: when I speak of people not being able to detect certain notes, I don't mean that as criticism in any way. I'm anosmic to a few things - we all are. This is something that happens through no fault of one's own. It's also not a big deal, because even if you can't smell a note or two, you can often "smell around" the notes, detecting accompanying aroma chemicals that a perfumer used to bolster the desired effect, like adding something camphorous to a lavender note. It poses challenges for certain, but fault only exists if someone knowingly cannot smell something and then claims that note is absent from a composition without disclosing their anosmia to readers.

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