3/16/16

Eight Young Co-Workers Confirm What I've Always Suspected: The Real World Isn't Losing Sleep Over the Death of the Classic Chypre


Mitsouko, down and out.


If you think the title of this post is heralding the death of the classic chypre as a "good" development in our postmodern culture, think again. The fact that few wear these old classics, things like Coty's Chypre, Mitsouko, Antaeus, Grey Flannel (and many others), is very distressing. It signals our cultural decline. That beautiful fragrances based on the timeless beauty of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss are pushed aside for nonsense like Neroli Portofino Acqua and Miss Dior "Parfum pour Cheveux" is sad. But I've always believed there's a simple reason for the chypre's grim fate: people just don't like it anymore.

In all my years of discreetly wearing Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel, I've noticed I've never received a single compliment on it. For a while I figured it was because people didn't notice it (I try to go light on the Flannel for obvious reasons), but as the years march on, and I continue wearing it day in/day out, the silence from others begins to reflect more than indifference. I've begun to think that most simply don't care for it, at least not enough to say anything to me.

That doesn't mean I care enough to stop wearing it. I love Grey Flannel. I'll always wear it. It's in my current rotation, in several vintages. And it's one of the few vintages that smells gorgeous, even if it has gone a bit flat. I think of it as the only true template for Creed's Green Irish Tweed. With a lick of green apple and real sandalwood, it would probably smell more like GIT than Aspen and Cool Water do. To me, it's a masterpiece. I'll never tire of it.

But even my most prized Jacqueline Cochran vintage Grey Flannel, which smells the most Green Irish Tweedy, fails to elicit a single comment from casual bystanders. GIT recently garnered an impressive "Ooh, that cologne is really beautiful," from a woman not given to such outbursts. Two days later I wore JC Grey Flannel in her close proximity, and got nothing. Zero. Zippo. Zilch. I thought for certain she would at least ask me if it was the same stuff, and maybe even say something about how similar it is, but no. Does this suggest that I'm mistaken in my GF/GIT comparison? Maybe. But still. Come on.

Fast forward to what happened to me today. This morning I showered, dressed, and donned vintage Mitsouko EDP, the one with oakmoss in the base (and lots of it). I drove to work, and arrived early. I sat waiting for others to show up. There are eight co-workers in my department, and they all had the same reaction when they walked in: "What's that smell?"

The sentence "What's that smell" is never, ever to be construed as something positive. When people like how something smells, they say things like, "Oh, that's nice, what is it?" Or, "Mmm, something smells good." But "What's that smell?" Sorry, you have somehow inadvertently fucked up. Perhaps the dosage is wrong. Maybe your skin chemistry and SOTD are having a spat. Or maybe your SOTD just doesn't smell good to anyone but you. In the first two cases, the problem is fixable. Use less scent, or try bathing with a different soap prior to applying your fragrance.

But in the third scenario, you're dealing with a different issue altogether. Your dosage probably doesn't matter, or matters little. And you've bathed adequately. So that whittles it down to the simple fact that people just don't care for your fragrance. In my case today, I was a bit incredulous. It was the first time I'd exposed this group of people to vintage Mitsy. I figured, what the heck. They've tolerated pretty much everything else (mostly fougères and orientals), so why not give my lovely oakmossy decant of this classic Guerlain a spin?

The instant negative feedback was functioning off the fulcrum of two teetering questions: What the fuck smells so bad? and Where is it coming from? I strategically sat closer to my supervisor, who is given to slathering strange skin products on herself, and hoped that this would throw them off the trail. Also in my favor was the presence of a few "off" smells in the building today. But the reactions were pretty visceral.

One man, thirty years of age, said, "I have no idea where it's coming from, but it's pretty bad. It smells like old hotel soap, the shit you're not supposed to use."

Another young woman, twenty-four years old, said, "Yeah, it's almost like that, and the smell of stale urine. Eew."

These comments garnered chuckles from the others, who all agreed. Another woman, thirty-eight, said, "I thought it was my imagination, but yeah, it's kind of weird. Where's it coming from?"

My supervisor, a thirty year-old woman who literally has stress seeping out of her pores on a twenty-four hour basis (her mouth twitches nervously while she's doing something as mundane and snooze-worthy as filing old paperwork away), immediately assumed that the cause of "The Smell" was her recent use of a rather vulgar hand lotion, and began incessantly apologizing for it, even though it was clear that most of my peers did not believe she was the cause of their olfactory distress. I just chuckled along and realized that some of the building's "off" notes were actually a bit worse than I'd realized, which made it that much easier to hide my festering embarrassment.

But I could kind of see their point. If taken wrongly, Mitsouko could be compared to "old soap." Its bone dry "peach" note (I've always felt the fruit idea was overstated in reviews of Mitsouko) combined with the astringent bergamot could certainly make an inexperienced sniffer recoil in fright. Then there's the oakmoss - oh, the oakmoss - which in plain English always smells musty and bitter, even in the loveliest of scents. And the weird, musky, piney, resinous darkness of good labdanum, which in many chypres just translates to an "earthy green" sort of note, isn't representative of today's trends. Not by a long shot.

I'm constantly reading threads and articles that lament the "death of the chypre." These conversations almost always revolve around reformulations of vintage greats, and inevitably the matter of oakmoss gets discussed. Unfortunately, IFRA regulations have strongly recommended that oakmoss and treemoss be used in very small quantities, with the mandate existing for European companies in particular. But in truth, even if the IFRA had minded its business and left oakmoss alone, the note would have died a slow and certain death anyway.

Look at things like Bleu de Chanel and Sauvage. Neither scent relies on oakmoss, yet both are descendents of the classic chypre, especially Bleu. Chanel decided to let the fruity/minty idea play out in a modern interpretation of the "fresh" but "earthy" theme, and the result is something that smells like a fancy deodorant, or perhaps a cheap aftershave. Sauvage got the bergamot part down, and used "earthy" accords to segue into a semi-sweet leather scent. A little labdanum and oakmoss would have put the composition in another league entirely. Sauvage would have smelled incredible. But Dior didn't want that angle. They wanted the Calvin Klein "suede cologne" idea of the last sixteen years.

The kicker is that I've worn reformulated Mitsouko to work on more than one occasion, and though it never elicited compliments, it never generated outright negativity, either. The newer stuff has no oakmoss at all, and thus isn't really a chypre in the technical sense of the term. I wear the old stuff, and what happens? People blanche.

The implications are clear. While by no means a reason to shy away from wearing the classics, our culture has moved away from these dusky, autumnal fragrances. Everyone I work with is under the age of forty. That they all found vintage Mitsouko distressing says something about their taste, sure, but it also says something about the perfume. The reality is that people don't really want to smell these things anymore. They're not interested in catching whiffs of bergamot (actual bitter orange distillate, not the fake shit found in current designer citrus frags), or labdanum, dried fruits, and bitter, acrid, Bavarian Forest oakmoss.

Earthy, woody, citrusy scents are compelling when put through the filter of "Fake." Today's nose wants to smell the idea of bergamot, the vague suggestion of something as oddball as labdanum, and maybe a soapy, semi-sweet analog of moss. Calvin Klein Man is an example of what happens when focus groups do a chypre. Sure, it smells good, and I wear it now and then, but I don't expect it to come close to the quality and uniqueness of an actual chypre.

Instead of "oohs" and "aaahs," vintage Mitsouko generated "Ughs" and "Eews." I know, I know. I live in America. We're a bunch of rubes. We don't know any better. We're one click away from making an orange, wig-wearing narcissist our president. How smart can we be? Maybe we're dumber than dirt, but that really doesn't matter. We still have to coexist. We must still go forth. We can do it the easy way, or the hard way. And unfortunately, wearing vintage Mitsouko means that today's under-forties wrinkle their noses around you. Guess that's not the easiest way forward. Guess it's why things like vintage Mitsouko are going extinct.


8 comments:

  1. This feels to me like one of those 'tip of the iceberg' topics that would probably grow ever more interesting as one collected anecdotes like your Mitsouko story... One point you hit on that fascinates me is the enjoyment of synthetics as referents rather than credible dupes (or discreet supports) for naturals. I think you've written convincingly, for instance, of the aesthetic role of synthetics in your reviews of Encre Noir and Versace Dreamer. Watching Demachy's 'Balade Sauvage' for instance, we see the attempt to lyricize synthetics, not only by hearkening back to their organic reference points (ambroxan = seashore) but also to a kind of wide-open sterile anomie that is at least in part the implicit product of a technologically mediated experience of the world (poor Johnny Depp riffing on his guitar deep in Gotham: "I have to get out of here!")

    I sometimes wonder if its a matter of generational vibes that 'click' or don't click: a streamlined and remixed 1960's modernism (Don Draper's suits at Banana Republic or reformulated Eau Sauvage) seem to gel well enough with the recent Neoliberal zeitgeist, but does anyone know where to place a smell like Mitsouko or Caron Pour Un Homme? I love the latter but not even my mother in law seems to notice it, and reviewers on Fragrantica and Basenotes often attack it as raw and unbalanced, which I think is in part the result of peoples' noses normalizing things like calone or synthetic woods.

    What I can't exactly figure out is how much of what makes a fragrance 'uplifting' is intellectual and how much is physiological. The orange blossom note in Habit Rouge is pretty much liquid joy to my nose, as is the lavender in PuH, the basil in Eau Sauvage and the sage/thyme/myrtle/patchouli in Antaeus. I know these aspects are generated and/or supported by synthetics, but as translations of poetry in a foreign language, they still seem to mean something other than themselves. But whereas while I love the herbal aspects (fennel/anise/sage) of the current formulation of Azzaro, the soapy synthetic aspects of the base seem to produce not just an imbalanced composition, but a whole other set of values and experiences that don't 'make sense' with any particular ethos/pathos established by the rest of the composition; the whole experience ends up feeling a bit ersatz to me, something faux-old world whose cheapness is no longer part of its charm. Maybe it deserves to go extinct, or maybe the values will make sense in time... It's hard to predict for sure what's coming down the tracks.

    The other day my 20-year old son walked out the door wearing Aramis (a mossy early 2000's bottle I'd found him at a thrift store)- The effect was kind of stunning - it was like smelling another time and place. It certainly conjured something Autumnal, like the low-lit, amber & umber-toned backdrops of 1970's board game covers or family counselling bestsellers. But then, he is an anarchist who uses gender-neutral pronouns without once tripping over them (no mean feat for me!) so signifiers of age, date and chromosomal configuration are kind of just options with which to 'plug 'n' play' as they say in cyborg land.

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    1. In describing some of the note "reboots" in recent reformulations of certain classics, you've hit upon the heart of the issue with reformulations in general. Why is it that most regard them with suspicion? Because there have been too many times when "change" and "improvement" fail to converge. Yet look at Van Cleef & Arpels PH, a fragrance reformulated several times, now considered to be terrific (by all but a few with stunted olfactory perception, it seems). The current formula is by most accounts a thorough and successful analysis of what made a "vintage" classic great - smooth blending, natural tones, and strength, strength, strength! It's like the fragrance equivalent of a hugely popular actor, its persona entering and leaving a room on a timetable separate from the entity itself.

      Your son's choice reflects why living and learning in 2016 is really about destroying boundaries. Twenty years ago, he probably would have balked at wearing Aramis. He would also have shied away from wearing "feminine" scents, "foodie" scents, and anything that challenged his gender norms. Today, it doesn't matter. In our postmodernist, cultural conceptual environment, young people can embrace alternatives without irony.

      But the bastions of normalcy are not without demarcation points. As you said, this issue with Mitsouko is the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to how contemporary culture perceives certain aspects of the past. At stake is the idea of nostalgia being an illusion, that we can smell something once considered "great" and without hesitation consider it awful is reflective of a sea change in standards and context. You can't discount the emptying force of familiarity - it really does breed contempt. And even the under-forties remember their grandmothers' penchants for galbanum-laced chypres like Charlie and Blue Grass, stuff that smelled bitter and white floral and not at all similar to anything embraced by the youth of today. A conscious choice to re-contextualize these "classic" fragrance forms requires the commensurate confidence and social context to work without a hitch. When you go retro and rock something very, very old, dating back a hundred years or more, you have to understand that the new cultural vacuum that formed since the scent's inception is unlikely to be filled with any reference points by its reintroduction. Therefore, something like "reference chypre" Mitsy can no longer truly bear claim to that name.

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  2. Yes, I always wonder about how 'reference' points might shift, especially as regards the classics. I'm actually coming around on Azzaro (based on chest-thumping reviews I'd read I was laying it on a bit thick - my conviction now is that it coheres much more effectively with a sheerer application). But don't you also wonder how blogs like this one (and sites like Fragrantica) will shape the next generation of fragrance lovers? A few years back, before getting interested in fragrances, I looked up reviews of CHANEL No. 5 as I was blind-buying it for my wife... I was naively surprised that such a venerable scent could still arouse such passionate, polarized arguments. Some folks might only read a few reviews, while others will surely read everything they can, and then read between the lines as well. Will different kinds of reading produce different kinds of noses? And how will fragrance bloggers like yourself, who provide the depth and perspective of greater experience and interest, change as the industry changes, and this kind of encyclopedic knowledge becomes increasingly arcane?

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    1. First, I think you have to consider the timeline, a linear cultural contextualization for the impact of blogs like mine. Eight years ago, fragrance blogs were influential. Five years ago, they were "relevant." Three years ago, they were on the decline. Looking back one year, they were "barely alive." And today, I doubt fragrance blogs are anything more than another blip on the industry's screen. There was a lack of honest copy about perfume back in the early 2000s that made the rise of the "perfume writer" something to celebrate. Then a whole bunch of writers appeared, there was twenty or thirty highly active blogs, and for a few years it seemed like the industry was actually changing BECAUSE people were writing and reading about perfume in ways never imagined before.

      Then the inevitable saturation point was reached. Blogs by less dedicated writers (many of whom had APPEARED dedicated for at least a few months) died sudden deaths. Heartier and better established publications persisted, but they no longer skipped along carefree. Some trudged; others plodded. And they plod onward.

      This blog has been intentionally "slowed down" in terms of how much is published, and when. I have intentionally ignored a whole slew of recent "niche" releases. Brands like Slumberhouse and Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie barely register here. There's a reason for that: the author's philosophy about what is valuable in perfume.

      I've never subscribed to the idea that niche perfumes are important. Will my readers carry my thought process with them into the future? Probably not. Blogs have swayed the industry in the past, though. Just look at how certain discontinued perfumes were magically reissued in the last ten years to see how. Would we ever have seen a reissue of Acteur by Azzaro? Not if countless internet personalities hadn't lauded Acteur and lamented its discontinuation. And what about Pascal Morabito's Or Black, reissued in 2014? It would have stayed dead if it hadn't achieved mythic status on the boards and blogs. In several instances recorded online (and mentioned here), companies have blatantly admitted that blogs influenced their decisions. Certainly blogs are not the last word, but they are taken into consideration. How many readers do these blogs have combined? Are their readers likely to purchase our product? What would it take to reissue it? (What's the risk?) All questions asked by corporate suits who - surprise, surprise - read stuff.

      I write on From Pyrgos not to change the industry or augment public opinion on things, but to convey my personal viewpoints as clearly as possible. Sure, I make my case on certain "political" issues in the fragrance world, and many times I've reiterated positions in greater depth than necessary (often to counter stupidity perpetuated by others), but I'm merely trying to stick my small flag in the still-unclaimed expanse of fragrance writing.

      How will fragrance bloggers change ten years from now? Not much, I would guess.

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  3. I find vintage Mitsouko EDC in the watch bottle to be the easiest to appreciate while still carrying the classic structure/composition (stark difference from later releases).
    I did make the mistake of buying some vintage Mitsouko soap. It came highly regarded by a few notable people, including Mr. Turin on his Perfumes I Love blog. I was expecting this wonderful oakmoss heavy scented soap, only to discover it to be pretty much as you described the reactions of those co-workers to your Mitsouko EDP. Old soap from the 50's dug out from grandma's closet! :-P

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  4. I believe it's called "acquired taste".

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    1. Try convincing a 25 yr old girl in Connecticut that Mitsouko is an acquired taste and let me know how that goes.

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    2. Exactly, that's why it's an acquired taste.

      Six or something years ago I was just like that girl but I wanted to expand my knowledge because I realized there was much more out there I wasn't aware of. So I started reading on the internet and that's how I came to discover your blog and others. That's why your work here matters because there's always gonna be people like myself that want to delve further, no matter the reason. So people can start to acquire that taste too, Step by step.

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