If I was to offer up a pop quiz and ask this question, “Name the first American designer fragrance?” I bet, notwithstanding looking at the title of this article, few would come up with the correct answer. Norell was the first American designer fragrance. Charles Revson of Revlon and perfumer Josephine Catapano were the creative team behind the perfume representing fashion designer Norman Norell. Norell became the first perfume to feature a huge amount of galbanum in the top notes. It was a trailblazer in many ways. In 1968 it was debuted in the luxury department store Bonwit Teller. It sold $1 Million dollars in its first year. Today heavily reformulated it can be found in any drugstore franchise fragrance cabinet.
In 2015 it was thought the Norell name needed to be recaptured in the fragrance sector. Perfumer Celine Barel was asked to create a new version called Norell New York. Ms. Barel has made a perfume which definitely has some of the same components but they have been altered in strength and prominence to create something similar but different.
Norell (1968) opens with that blast of galbanum. Smelling it now that doesn’t seem to be different than many very green perfumes on the market. In 1968 this was a completely unique opening. The galbanum moves into a full floral heart of hyacinth, rose, and gardenia. Ms. Catapano adds the twist of using clove and cinnamon leaves to provide a long tail on the galbanum and a real accentuation of the spicy core of the rose. In many ways this is also the trendsetter for the spicy floral heart which will explode in the 1970’s. The base is another ahead of its time piece of work as it takes a large amount of oakmoss and softens it tremendously with sandalwood, vanilla and orris. It was a supple foundation which would also not become fashionable for another 10-15 years. If there is one word to describe Norell it is green.
That is not the word I would use to describe Norell New York (2015). This time I would say floral. Ms. Barel does hearken back to the original with a bit of galbanum in the top but it is matched with an equal amount of pear. The heart is floral dominated but instead of rose Ms. Barel uses jasmine as her focal point to which gardenia and peony provide the supporting roles. Here the green has been cut off at the pass and we are in more traditional fruity floral territory with the pear and florals interacting. The place where Norell New York most closely resembles the original is in the base as Ms. Barel uses sandalwood, vanilla, and orris. Her stand-in for the oakmoss is a particularly earthy patchouli. All together it is a really excellent re-creation of the original’s base.
One final experiment I performed with a strip of Norell and Norell New York was I gave it to a group of women who are similar in age to me in their late 40’s early 50’s; four out of the five preferred the older Norell using words like “classic”. I also tried the same exercise with five women in their late 20’s early 30’s and the result was the opposite; four out of five preferred the more recent version. Those women all had a strong reaction to the original calling it the dreaded “old lady” smell. I pointed out the base was similar in the new version but they all like the fruity floral opening so much that it seems that similarity didn’t matter.
If I was presented a bottle of the original Norell in a pristine well-preserved box I would obviously choose that. But the Norell which I find at my local CVS has been cheapened by reformulation so much that it has lost much of the original verve it had. Which is why I am pleased that Norell New York exists. By using a slightly different name and allowing a perfumer instead of an accountant to modernize the brand. The new release is a much more fitting representative of the first American designer perfume.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample of the original Norell provided by an anonymous donor. The current Norell was purchased by me. Norell New York came from a sample provided by Bergdorf Goodman.