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.