Habit Rouge and the Grim Reaper

   A Guest Post By Luna_J
Recently Fragrantica published a piece asking some of its editors to name a fragrance that they would relate to one of the "Seven Deadly Sins." John Biebel named Habit Rouge for the sin of "wrath," because he found it impossible to like despite its celebrated reputation; not just "Meh," not "It's great, but not for me," but the kind of extravagant airing of grievance that makes me question whether the reviewer was so caught up in nursing his feelings that he hazarded accuracy (not to mention readability) for impact. It's worth quoting at length: 
“It's not often that I put on a fragrance in a store, fall in love, put it on again at home, and then recoil in confusion. Yet there the dark rider looms on the horizon. He's supposed to be dressed in red (we are speaking about Habit Rouge, after all...) but no, this is more like a silhouetted figure from Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal traipsing with Death across the horizon. What has happened here? The beloved, historic, storied, elegant, treasured Habit Rouge, one of Guerlain's jewels in the crown from 1965, turns out to be sticky, acrid lemon candies strewn atop plastic carnation blossoms, and then the whole lot soaked in imitation vanilla extract. After a few hours: powder, then more powder. Dusting powder to the extent that I began sneezing. Again I asked, what on earth happened here?”
The thought of a critic, one who is a perfumer no less, losing his composure like this is heartening; It gives me a lot of faith in the long-term prospects of perfume writing (it’s hard to write – or read – novel prose about universally approved experiences). A scenery-chewing critique that asks unreasonable questions should be considered for its contrarian verve, if nothing else. Just what on Earth has happened here?

First, some background... You can find this on the internet, so I’ll be brief. The year is 1965. Twenty eight year-old fragrance house heir and all-round wonder boy, Jean Paul Guerlain, is riding high after coming up with the house’s now iconic Vétiver four years earlier. The notion is to take Guerlain’s famously seductive perfume Shalimar and make a version suitable for men. This was not a huge stretch; the ad copy acknowledged that men were probably already dipping into their wives’ Shalimar. They had certainly done so with Jicky several generations earlier, with the result that that composition was made over in male drag as Mouchoir de Monsieur. Sniffing the bottle of any version of Shalimar, you will smell a huge dose of citrusy eau de cologne married to smoky vanilla with some incense in the mix. Wafting off of someone’s skin, it’s more like leathery lemon pudding, with a touch of what some people call a ‘dirty diaper’ accord. Am I scaring you yet? It’s fantastic, actually. I gave my teenage daughter Shalimar one Christmas, and her room became saturated with it; I now know this signature all too well.

Habit Rouge is not Shalimar. Vintage fans insist that the original HR was (wait for it), fuller, rounder, deeper, and more natural, but also more decadent in the civet-whispering manner of Shalimar. Today’s Habit Rouge rides lightly through the air despite its persistent density on skin. It was reformulated by JPG himself in 2003, and then tinkered with by new house nose Thierry Wasser sometime later. If you are the kind of person who assumes that a new bottle style necessarily means a new reformulation, you might imagine yet more tweaking taking place a few years back, when Guerlain switched all of its masculine fragrances to the handsomely bevelled ‘briefcase bottle,’ first designed by Robert Granai especially for Habit Rouge. Personally, I don’t believe Habit Rouge benefits from being pigeonholed as some kind of angularly handsome Shalimar – I think the experience is more complex than that.

Though perfume guides characterize it using the cringy term ‘oriental,’ this is not a fragrance based on near-lethal doses of spices and sticky resins; Opium it’s not.  It is helpful to understand that Habit Rouge, at least since Wasser’s intervention, is a ‘transparent’ pyramid, which is to say that in its classically constructed top-heart-base progression, you can smell (or sense) the entire composition from the outset, as if looking through pale layers of caramelized sugar. The whole thing feels meticulously proportioned: cinnamon and patchouli create a delightfully stimulating tingle of incense, but never quite veer into Nag Champa territory. Luca Turin described Habit Rouge as ‘sweet dust’. Though biased by having first spilled a sample of it on myself while roaming the arts section of Powell’s Books, I mostly agree, adding ‘sweet dust in a clean, well-lit bookstore, stocking new and used editions while wearing a brand new tan leather blazer.’ The blazer is invented; don’t ask me why tan, but it goes with the blond shelves of vanilla-scented money I associate with big bookstores.

So... what’s not to like? That traditional eau de cologne splash of Mediterranean fruit notes – lemon, bergamot, mandarin orange, plus a big hit of neroli, is almost universally refreshing; orange blossom and orris add a deliciously soft, chalky breeze, lifting the acidity of the citrus into a pale pastel sweetness before paving the way for a waft of airy lavender. The classical floral and clove-like aspects of carnation are right there with a berry-red rose, and a hint of green vetiver to stop it all from becoming too rich. A gilded ‘praline’ effect produced by supple resins of labdanum and benzoin combined with accords of tonka and vanilla draws a diplomatic line between palatable pleasure and intimations of gourmand excess. A rigid accord of synthetic woods rests at the base, adding a popsicle-stick/tongue depressor-like dryness; it’s a little distracting if you focus on it, but I appreciate its technical role, and note how it helps along my impression of crisp, bound pages. As I said earlier, this is not an exotic Byzantine church smell, but a light, talc-y santal with a friendly earthiness at its base (mostly from the well-behaved patchouli note) that eases into a skin scent in an extraordinarily well-staged way. One of the secrets of Habit Rouge revealed only upon repeat wearing is that, despite its lively opening, its long ‘legs’ (i.e., tenaciously lovely heart and base note progressions) are what make it so rewarding to wear.

But it’s polarizing. I love the fact that when this was first released it was a worrisome flop. Nineteen sixty-five feels too early for the gender-bending powderiness, the playing up of gilded-age cologne-splash dandiness, and the heady floralcy that make Habit Rouge special. It made questionable sense at the outset of the decade of industrial recovery in Europe (and clean-cut, jet-age Camelot stateside) to release a men’s version of what had by then become an iconic but venerable feminine fragrance, and to advertise it with aristocrats on horseback for Christ’s sake. Of course, just a little later its anachronistic affectations, flower-power fruitiness, and hippy incense vibes would all be right at home when “the sixties'' really arrived, sometime around 1967. Keith Richards once mentioned that his switch from Old Spice to Habit Rouge made life “a lot more interesting,” and I like to picture its rosy odour floating around the basement of that French villa he used as a makeshift studio while arranging Exile on Main Street. I think a little too much is made of the Richards connection (decades later he was photographed in a salubrious den with a big bottle of Fahrenheit behind him, a fragrance I can more readily relate to his current incarnation of weather-beaten buccaneer). But it’s fun to imagine Richards in Habit Rouge, and Mick Jagger in his own favourite at the time, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, leaving trails of tar and flowers behind them as they rolled through London.

Habit Rouge remains tricky because it smells good - really good, even beautiful – but it’s a beauty unstuck from a solid set of reference points. It’s not really ‘unisex,’ so much as both butch and femme; it belongs to a heritage nameplate, but feels fresh and niche if you think of niche (as I tend to) as overdetermined, single-minded, and weird. It feels right with a tailored suit, but one being worn by an actor, impersonator, or lovable fraud.

With that said, I just don't quite get Biebel's dance of death accusations - why so dire? Consider though The Seventh Seal: yet another of Bergman's films in which troubled characters seek meaning in a bleak universe. In the midst of it all the story's protagonist, a knight fated to face death, finds his life's best moments summed up in a bowl of strawberries and milk. What could be more Habit Rouge than that? For Bergman, strawberries represented an underrated gem, a home of memory and sentiment, which sounds about right. At the moment, as debates about identity politics that first caught fire in the sixties and seventies continue to burn, we are experiencing a fashion moment that, pandemic sweatpants notwithstanding, is reviving that era, not only by way of color and vibrancy, but also by the mingled feelings of creative play and societal malaise. What on Earth has happened here? Perhaps Habit Rouge remains both polarizing and relevant for being distinctively itself: a gem keeping life in sentimental perspective.


Vetiver, 2015 (Guerlain)

I reviewed this fragrance years ago in the "ribbed bottle" formula, which came in the post-2007 green box design with the tiny Guerlain G's in that itty-bitty circle (called the "plain box" style on the superlative blog Raiders of the Lost Scent). At the time I thought it was very French and well made, sturdy in summer heat, yet only slightly marred by an unpleasant "bug-spray" quality to the bergamot top note, a demerit heavily commented on at the time. I thought it was quite good, albeit a bit shy of "great." 

According to Andre, Vetiver was reformulated in 2015. According to basenoter "Andy the Frenchy," it was repackaged in its current green-cap bottle in 2016, sans reformulation. The code on my bottle/box is 7Q01, dating it to March of 2017, and thus I consider my bottle to be the 2015 formula. With that said, Guerlain fragrances are notoriously difficult to keep straight. The house has issued countless perfumes in as many different creative packagings bearing endlessly complicated batch codes. Accurately chronicling them is a Herculean task. Such is the way with older French perfumery firms.

I should mention that the "ribbed bottle" version is a unicorn among vintage enthusiasts, although you can buy it on eBay for an average price of $175. That's no bueno for me. If you want the truth, I wore about two ounces of that formula, and wantonly sprayed the other two on my old leather jacket. I enjoyed how rain resurrected it from the cow hide weeks after application, and preferred to smell it that way. I just wasn't "wowed" by the fragrance on my skin. There's something I can't pinpoint in the ribbed version (I suspect the synthetic citrus) that feels off-kilter and a little wrong. 

Personal quibble aside, Vetiver is still an enduringly popular fragrance. In his interesting 2008 book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York, journalist and art museum curator Chandler Burr famously extracted from actress Sarah Jessica Parker the confession that she regularly wears the Parisian trademark vetiver. Eighties supermodel Elle Macpherson stated in her 2018 New York Magazine article that she has worn it for over thirty years, and considers it her signature. Eddie Roschi, co-founder of Le Labo, said in a 2011 NY Times article by Michael Walker that "In some countries you can smell it in the subways because everyone wears it." In a pithy 2013 New York Post article, Kelly Killoran Bensimon, American celebrity real estate agent and television personality, described her Vetiver-wearing hubby as the antithesis of a "loser"- an indirect plug for the fragrance. This year marks its 60th anniversary, and it would be a mistake to say that this iconic cologne has missed its twenty-first century target buyer: the woman who prizes strength and individualism in herself and others. 

Released in 1961, Vetiver showcases a note that was ahead of its time in masculine perfumery. It had been framed previously in floral bouquets and the rich, vanilla-laden orientalism of midcentury feminines. But according to Perfume author Lizzie Ostrom, it was "Newly appropriated as a masculine." In her 2016 book she wrote:
"It is as though, in trying to fence off some territory for the guys, anything remotely woody was grabbed and de-feminised. There is nothing particularly manly about vetiver, aside from being told it is so, to which end all female readers are encouraged to have a go with Guerlain's Vetiver. Since its release, the Guerlain version has become the most famous of the three main vetivers, designed, according to the house, with reference to the smell of a gardener, complete with soil under his fingernails . . . Vetiver has a really chewy smell. It is often described using terms like wood, liquorice, smoke and amber. In this scent its greenness is brought out with bergamot, its aromatic qualities with nutmeg and coriander, and its sweet smokiness from tobacco."

What a good description of the current formula, which has seen some improvement on the fidelity of its citrus notes, and a re-pouching of the extra pinches of snuff found in the 2000s version. I'd add freshly-squeezed lime as another prominent "green" catalyst in the scent, its crisp (and woody) essence enduring until the far dry-down. An almost animalistic coriander/black pepper accord, with emphasis on the sweaty-lemon facet of pulverized coriander seed, is balanced on the relaxed interplay of tobacco, vetiver root, and cedar, which rounds everything off. It's linear on my skin, with the morning sunlight of its fizzy top drifting slowly under a cool vetiver horizon by day's end. 

I'll end with this: to wear a vetiver fragrance of any kind is an exercise in sophistication. Despite its ubiquity in the tropics, most North Americans have no idea what vetiver is. Everyone's eyes glaze over when I tell them what I'm wearing. Guerlain's latest Vetiver is a frag I can get into. It's interesting to trial it in the winter, and I'll likely repurchase a bottle for the summer to see how it does in high heat. Good on Guerlain for keeping it going! On to Habit Rouge . . .