Can Francis Kurkdjian Bring Some Insolence Back to Dior?

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Last Friday saw another big changing of the guard in perfumery. It was announced that Francois Demachy was retiring from his post as in-house perfumer at Christian Dior. His replacement as of October 18 will be Francis Kurkdjian. Of all the great designer perfume brands what has gone on at Dior over the recent years has seemed like they were taking a wrecking ball to their perfume reputation.

Francois Demachy

Starting in 2018 Dior fragrance under M. Demachy’s guidance had turned into something unrecognizable. They were releasing fragrances which had no soul. They were crass exercises in pandering to the least common denominator. All perfume brands do this. While Dior Sauvage plays on every current masculine trope it undeniably sells because it is the greatest hits of accords. Bleu de Chanel does the same for that venerable designer. The difference is for every Bleu de Chanel there is also Les Eaux de Chanel. Creativity is balanced with commercialism. Dior for the last three years has been only commercialism.

Francis Kurkdjian

They have diluted one of the great exclusive designer collections as they released more Maison Christian Dior fragrances over three years than they did in the previous 14. All of them are easily forgettable. That Vanilla Diorama will likely be the last perfume from him is a tragedy. What is most confounding about all of this is the recent documentary “The Nose” which told M. Demachy’s story. That film showed an artist excited about perfumery. Based on the perfumes it feels like it must have been recorded years ago. As much as the film belies the reality, having M. Demachy step down seems like a good choice.

Which brings us to the new in-house perfumer. M. Kurkdjian might be the best perfumer who effectively straddles mainstream and niche. He has one of the all-time greats in Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Male. He has balanced the crowd-pleasing qualities of Maison Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Universalis and Baccarat Rouge 450 with some of the best oud-centric perfumes in the niche sector.

More importantly he has a connection to the beginning of the Maison Christian Dior exclusive line. Back in 2004 creative director Hedi Slimane wanted to position Dior in the high-end niche market. He oversaw the creation of a three-perfume debut collection. Two of them, Cologne Blanche and Eau Noire were composed by M. Kurkdjian. Both were subsequently discontinued years later. Eau Noire has become a unicorn. Cologne Blanche was a warm take on orange blossom that I feel was one of the earliest entries in the Nouveau Cologne trend.

One of the things I enjoy about M. Kurkdjian is he seems to design in a focused way. He is willing to create trends instead of following them. Just think of all the descendants of Le Male if you need an example. It is that which makes me hopeful that he can restore some of the lost creativity at Dior.

What makes me believe this might be the case is the last line of the WWD article announcing the change. M. Kurkdjian is quoted as saying, “Dior had a quotation that I adore: ‘Respect tradition and dare to be insolent. One can’t go without the other.’” It is that insolence which has been missing at Dior in recent times. If M. Kurkdjian can bring that back, he can wake the echoes of the glorious past.

Mark Behnke

Colognoisseur Take 2

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I started Colognoisseur on February 1, 2014. One of the rules I made for myself was to publish a new piece every day. I did that until I didn’t. On September 16 events caused me to miss my first day of posting. Those circumstances kept me from doing this for a week and a half. When life forces you to take a pause it allows for some reflection.

After about a week I began to think I wouldn’t start again. I spent a day asking myself, “why do I do this?”. Without my knowing, the world of fragrance was out there encouraging me to get back up. The most important answer to that question is I am still fascinated by perfume. The ability to write about it is my way of collecting my thoughts into a thesis for each piece I write. Through every word I learn something more. As a scientist that is as much a reason to keep going as any.

What else was happening is my desk was filling up with some great perfumes. I was still smelling because my curiosity was still intact. Whenever I smell something I like for the first time the very faint outlines of what I’m going to write form in my head. If I stopped, there was a lot of amazing perfume which I was never going to write about.

I was surprised when a couple of perfumers reached out to ask what was going on. They encouraged me to get back to it. I wasn’t surprised when a couple of my most faithful readers knew something was off right away. That I have an audience that enjoys what I write is another reason. It isn’t why I do it but its nice to be appreciated.

As you know I made the decision to start writing again at the beginning of the week. What I found when I sat down to write the first review it was like meeting an old friend after a separation. I was back into it with the same enthusiasm I had previously had. Writing about perfume still provided the same joy it always had.

The short answer is I am going to keep writing about perfume. The difference is I might take a day off here and there. One thing I learned was that initial rule of publishing every day was adding a little bit of stress. I have removed that from my way of thinking about the blog. I’m going to write when I have things to write about. Which will be close to every day anyway. For Colognoisseur Take 2 I’m going to give myself permission to take a break or two.

I am happy to keep writing for all of you who spend a couple minutes of your day reading what I write. I appreciate you all more than I can say.

Mark Behnke

What to Wear for Apple Picking: Hermessence Ambre Narguile

This past weekend I headed to our local orchard to be surprised at some early apples to be had. I adore this time of year. Apples are part of what makes autumn. Greedily I scooped some up and watched Mrs. C roll her eyes when I exclaimed, “Apple pie!” I spent my afternoon putting it together. If there is any scent which means fall to me it is an apple pie fresh out of the oven. There is a perfume which does a fantastic job of recreating it, Hermessence Ambre Narguile.

The Hermessence line was created in 2004 by in-house perfumer at the time Jean-Claude Ellena. This was a collection which reflected his minimalistic approach to composition along with his ability to add a luminous quality. Back when this collection debuted with four fragrances it stood apart from almost everything else in the artistic perfumery world. These were the early days and M. Ellena was staking out a section of it all his own. For the next twelve years and nine more perfumes it became one of the best collections out there. This is a set of perfumes of which I own all of them. They are everything I look for in the world of perfume.

Jean-Claude Ellena

That’s the Colognoisseur talking. Mark the apple pie maker loves Ambre Narguile because it so ideally captures the scent of a cooling apple pie. Another thing to consider is that it was an early very different entry in the gourmand style of perfume. At this early point of time they were heavy cloying affairs. Amber Narguile was subtle to their sledgehammers. The beautiful trick is that M. Ellena creates an apple pie without using apple in the formula. What happens is his understanding of intersections of ingredients to give rise to something new.

It opens with that cinnamon flavored apple pie accord. Early on it is subtle like the steam rising from the pie as it comes out of the oven. It begins to take on a larger presence as it “cools”. I do not know exactly the combination M. Ellena uses here. It is some parts honey, another part amber, some coumarin, some cinnamon, and vanilla. Even after all these years I am sure I don’t have it all. I have just learned to enjoy it.

As it develops further a dollop of dark rum along with rich tobacco form the base to the apple pie. They add depth without turning it treacly.

Ambre Narguile has 10-12 hour longevity.

After making the apple pie this weekend I was driven to want to write about this perfume. it doesn’t really fit any of my usual monthly themes. Although I had a fleeting thought to try and claim it was Under the Radar. Sometimes I choose the perfume to write about. This time apples and Ambre Narguile chose me.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

After 9/11 Fragrance Began to Bring Me Back

When 9/11 happened twenty years ago I was at work in Boston. Like everyone it was a moment which shook me to my core. It challenged much of what I believed in. Forcing me to consider hard truths. I walked around feeling disconnected. I was looking to find some way to re-connect myself to the world. One way that was going to happen was a close friend was getting married soon after. We were going to get in a car and drive to the wedding. I was conflicted about it all. In normal times I would have looked forward to buying a new outfit for the occasion.

Mrs. C has always understood the ways I need to be out and about. When she asked me when I was going to go shopping, I replied, “I don’t think I am.” I received a look that I understood innately. Without words she was telling me to go back out into the world. Do the things which gave me pleasure.

I walked down to the subway station and took it into downtown Boston. My store of choice in those days was Lord & Taylor. I shopped there often enough that the salespeople in the men’s departments knew me. This included men’s fragrances. At this point in time this was one of two places where most of my perfume buying took place.

When I arrived, I just wasn’t in the place where I needed to be to begin to pick out clothes. I headed towards the fragrance counter instead. Anne greeted me with a muted smile. I quickly realized she was working while her mind was also elsewhere. We exchanged our thoughts on the tragedy. I told her I was looking for a new fragrance to wear to a wedding. I believe I detected a little light in her eyes as she began to assemble the recent releases. I also began to feel better having something to do.

After trying a few things there were two bottles on the counter. Cartier Declaration Bois Bleu and Givenchy Pi Fraiche. Anne was aware I owned the original versions of both flankers. What was great were both were quite different from those.

Declaration Bois Bleu is a gorgeous mixture of citrus and spice over a fresh vetiver base. Pi Fraiche was the opposite of the vanilla comfort scent of the original. This was an aggressively green herbal and pine style over a warm benzoin base.

As Anne and I discussed them I could begin to feel some sense of life begin to seep in around the edges of the melancholy. By the time I had to decide I just said, “I’ll take them both.” We laughed and I realized it was the first one I had in a week. The sound was also the embers of life gaining some strength. I would finish my shopping buying a new linen jacket and slacks which would go with my straw fedora.

When we were on the road a week later everyone in the car became silent as we passed New York City and the Towers were missing. The wedding was a joyful affair. Maybe because we all needed it. By the time we were driving home the mutilated landscape of New York City saddened us just a little less.

Like so many on this 20th anniversary I am looking back. Wondering how we ever got back on our feet. Each of us found our own handholds to pick us back up. My first one was at a fragrance counter.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds- La Liz Shows the Way

Every trend has a beginning. Prior to 1991 the idea of putting a celebrity’s name on a perfume was unheard of. After the success of Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds the brands couldn’t find someone to partner with fast enough. Even this was a slow burn. White Shoulders was the third fragrance released with Ms. Taylor’s name. Two gendered versions of Passion preceded it. At this point in time Ms. Taylor was an all-caps large font “star”. The public fascination with her was voracious in a time where that played out in supermarket tabloids instead of Gawker. She had her own nick name La Liz. Because of the less relentless pressure she was able to ride that wave of notoriety without wiping out.

Her foray into fragrance wasn’t a failure through the two versions of Passion. It was just that nobody saw the popularity of White Shoulders ahead of its release. Perfumers Carlos Benaim and Olivier Gillotin were seemingly tasked to create an “elegant” white floral. This is all happening right on the cusp of fragrance trends taking a hard left towards fresh and clean. To their credit they designed White Diamonds as if that was never going to happen.

Carlos Benaim

White Diamonds felt like a throwback even in 1991. The perfumers throw a cloud of aldehydes over a fresh lily. In hindsight I can say here is where a little fresh resides. It disappears when a floral ingredient as exuberant as La Liz appears in tuberose. This is a full volume version. The indoles add a skank to it which jasmine and narcissus call out to. It heads towards a patchouli and sandalwood base given some warmth via amber.

White Diamonds has 6-8 hour longevity and above average sillage in its current formulation.

The bottle I own is from around 2000. I also picked up a mini of the current version. The biggest difference when comparing is there is more jasmine in the heart now. It still doesn’t hesitate in showing off the indoles. The base is also less complex, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It isn’t as intense as it was in the original. Something is missing. I don’t think it dramatically changes things because it is the aldehydic top accord and the tuberose heart which makes this.

White Diamonds was a gigantic best-seller for well over a decade. Even after the trends went far away people kept buying it. Re-visiting it I forgot the freshness of that top accord and what a contrast the dirty indoles make with it. It still seems like an artifact of an earlier fragrance era. The influence was really felt in the hundreds of celebrities who would rush to put their name on a perfume.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: David Jourquin Cuir Altesse- Strong Enough for a Man, Made for a Woman

There are a bunch of great collections which hum along in the background of perfumery. One of my favorites are the perfumes of David Jourquin. He creatively directed a set of seven fragrances from 2011-2016. All of them are different variations on leather in perfume. M. Jourquin’s first two releases were a set designed for daytime and nighttime wear by men. He worked with perfumer Cecile Zarokian for both of those. Three years later he would again collaborate with her on a similar pair designed to be worn by women. It contains my favorite of the collection David Jourquin Cuir Altesse.

Regular readers know I am not swayed by whatever the brands tell me about the gender of a fragrance. I can make up my own mind. Back in 2014 As I tried both of these, I kept thinking of the old Secret deodorant commercial’s tagline, “strong enough for a man, made for a woman”. It is a dopey concept to be sure. Cuir Altesse may have been imagined achieving that. It is as much a shared perfume as any I own.

It opens with one of my favorite cardamom centric top accords. Mme Zarokian uses orange and baie rose as the other pieces. The fruitiness of the baie rose and the juiciness of the orange form the underpinning of the cardamom giving it depth and presence. As it heads to the floral heart, I guess the jasmine was supposed to be the focal point of it all. Except this is where the idea of assigning a perfume to a gender goes sideways. The jasmine is indolic and she ladles in cumin to resonate. This is the sweaty cumin many are wary of. She quickly counters with rose and patchouli which tames the cumin while allowing it to delightfully strum those indoles of the jasmine.

All these perfumes are built on a leather accord in the base. The one fashioned by Mme Zarokian uses vanilla and benzoin to pick up on the sweeter aspects of refined luxurious leather. It makes it softer until a bit of amber and oakmoss add some texture in the final stages.

Cuir Altesse has 12-14 hour longevity and average siullage.

Before writing this column, I confirmed that the entire line is still available to be sampled. This is an example of the amount of great perfume which fell through the cracks in the deluge of releases the last decade. All the David Jourquin perfumes deserve to be on your radar, especially if you like leather.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

A Tale of Two Creative Directors

Ever since I began writing about perfume, I always wanted to give credit to the perfumer and the creative director. It is as important to me as knowing who writes and directs a movie. In the best cases the partnership is creativity amplified.

Over a typical year I receive hundreds of samples. One consistent event always seems to happen. I receive a couple of sets of new releases, and they rise above everything else. This happened about six weeks ago. I’ve been spending my own sweet time enjoying myself. This week I’m finally going to share my thoughts about them. There is one consistent piece of what I will cover they are overseen by two of the best creative directors in all of perfumery, Alessandro Brun of Masque Milano and now Milano Fragranze and Victor Wong of Zoologist. Both are shining examples of how to succeed creatively and commercially in the independent perfume sector. They also share the same love of perfume that I, and probably most readers, have. That passion forms the core of their success.

Mr. Wong was literally “one of us”. He was part of many Facebook fragrance groups. You would find him in the middle of discussions with other fragrance aficionados almost daily. One day in 2014 he announced he was going to start his own brand of perfume for which he would act as creative director. I remember thinking to myself that I hoped he didn’t lose too much money. Success was not the likely outcome.

Yet Mr. Wong entered the process of overseeing the vision of his new brand Zoologist like “one of us”. He chose from among the fragosphere’s favorite independent perfumers. For four years he nudged some of those individualists into a team setting. For many of them he would extract their best work. All in service to creating a cuddly animal inspired perfume.

2019 would mark a turning point as he took the step of working with perfumers from IFF. He also maintained releases from the roster of independents he had yet to work with. What was admirable was he asked for the same adventurous creativity that had become the signature of Zoologist. Over nearly thirty perfumes there are “challenging” ones and “crowd-pleasers”. What unites them is Mr. Wong’s vision.

Sig. Brun has been one half of the creative direction, with Riccardo Tedeschi, of the premier independent brand Masque Milano. When I first met him at Esxence in 2013 I thought he was part of an irritating trend. Carpetbaggers in the perfume aisle. Over the early years of attending Esxence I saw people who were less interested in perfume. They wanted to get to the marketing part, the perfume was secondary. When it came to Sig. Brun, I had it completely wrong. It became extremely clear to me when I sat down with the sample set of the first four Opera perfumes, he helped creatively direct.

While he didn’t hang out on the Facebook pages I would come to realize he is also “one of us”. He adores the art of perfumery. He reveres the opportunity he has to add to it. Together with Sig. Tedeschi they have worked with a European-based roster of young perfumers. This again leads to what is the best work for many of these precocious talents.

Now Sig. Brun is breaking out on his own to oversee his own line, Milano Fragranze. He is interpreting the city that he loves, Milano by interpreting eight different areas of the city. It is another triumph.

I am spending today waxing operatic about these two visionaries because the rest of the week is going to be focused on the extraordinary perfumes they’ve just overseen. The four new Zoologist releases along with the debut collection of Milano Fragranze is as good as independent perfumery gets. Which is a tale of two creative directors at the top of their game.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Dana Canoe- The First Sport Fragrance?

The more I learn about the history of some of the legacy scents the more I enjoy doing what I do. I’ve been looking at the fragrance shelf at my local drugstore for topics for this column. When I saw the box for Canoe Dana, I thought of my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s. During that time Canoe was one of the staple perfumes worn by men. When I started digging into the history, I learned it was originally marketed for women.

Canoe was created in 1936 by perfumer Jean Carles. The desire was for a fresher counterpart to Dana Tabu. I couldn’t quite pin it down but sometime over the next 25 years Canoe became a man’s fragrance. By that point the fresh fougere had changed its target audience. From a current perspective it is hard to have seen a fragrance with such a barbershop fougere style being marketed to anyone but the guys.

As I was re-visiting it for this review, I was surprised at how relevant is still feels. It reminds me of a lot of other choices from more recent brands, all of them with “sport” in the name. It made me think that if Canoe wasn’t the first sport fragrance it is close.

When thinking about haw M. Carles would approach a fresher alternative to Tabu It isn’t hard to imagine. Bright citrus, rugged lavender, clean cedar, herbal clary sage and some fresh heliotrope. That’s the backbone upon which this scent was built.

It opens with tart lemon matched to the slightly powdery lavender. This is the only place where I kind of see the idea of a feminine. Most other masculine perfumes of this time used a more herbal lavender. The powdery part is more present. It only lasts for a short time as clary sage extracts that herbal quality of lavender. The clean pencil shavings scent of cedar comes next along with a spicy geranium enhanced with clove. Heliotrope adds floral lift through this early development.

The biggest difference I noticed with the three versions I had came in the base accord. My circa 1970 bottle has the softness of oakmoss with musk to form a pseudo-chypre foundation. As this was reformulated through the 90’s and further that base accord changed its focus to vanilla. In my bottle from around 2000-ish there is still a hint of musk and moss but not much. By the bottle I bought a month ago even that hint is gone it is all vanilla over the final stages.

Canoe (2021) has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

The variation in the base does not change the appeal of Canoe, it alters it. It seems as if perfumer David Apel was asked to oversee the reformulation. I like the choices he made because it doesn’t overwhelmingly change what Canoe stands for. Even now perhaps the first sports fragrance.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I own.

Mark Behnke

The Return of Bad Habits

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The biggest positive change to modern perfumery in the 21st century is the knowledge of the perfumer. Right at the turn of the century there were a couple developments which changed what had happened for the previous 100 years. First was when Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle put the name of the perfumer front and center on the label. The second were writers on perfume who were also interested in illuminating the perfumers. Chandler Burr’s “The Perfect Scent” is but one example. Previously perfumers were referred to as “ghosts”. Knowing who was making the perfume became an important piece of knowledge moving forward.

When I started writing about perfume, I always wanted to know not only the perfumer but the creative director. I have always been interested in the creative process. Perfumery presents an ideal opportunity to describe the results of it. Any regular reader will know that the only pictures usually accompanying a review are of the creative team. That will never change.

As these ideas were evolving in the early days of the 2000’s there were some brands who wanted to keep the perfumers as phantoms. There was an egotistical belief that their investment also came with the ability to claim the entire creative process; leaving out the perfumer they worked with.

The ridiculous piece of this was that now that we knew who the perfumers were there was no going back. There are certain perfumers who have distinctive styles. During this time I remember writing to a brand owner who was very coy about doing everything. I asked if they were working with a certain perfumer. They demurred. It was years later when they would acknowledge that they were working with the perfumer I had asked them about. There were lots of them that wanted to give off the idea they were creative polymaths all on their own.

Thankfully, this behavior changed because as the perfumers became as known to perfume customers as the brands, they also carried a cachet. A savvy fragrance buyer might follow a perfumer from brand to brand. For the last fifteen years or so that has been the way. When I would contact a brand asking about the perfumer, I would get an e-mail right back with the answer.

Except the last year has seen the return of brand owners trying to seem as if they do it all. Especially when it is clear they are not. I have received several e-mail responses like this, “the brand prefers not to release the name of the perfumer.” I think this marks a return to the bad habits of a few years ago.

At this point in time it just seems disrespectful to the process. The brand hired a perfumer there is no need to hide it. Except to obfuscate the creativity transferring it to the brand owner. I am not going to go along with it. Every time a brand tells me they aren’t going to tell me the name of the perfumer I am only going to look that much harder.

The spotlight is bright enough for multiple people to stand within.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Route du Vetiver- The Beginnings of Niche

Now that I’ve been writing about perfume for over a decade, I’ve accepted brands come and go. Most of the time if it is one I’ve written about I am a little melancholy. If a brand has made the effort, I am hopeful it can find its audience. It is especially tragic when it is a brand which taught me a lot about niche perfumery in my early days of exploring everything that smelled good. This was the case when Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier sharply contracted their distribution a few years ago. They weren’t discontinued but they might as well have been. What was important about the brand was the founder and perfumer Jean-Francois Laporte was creating his second independent brand ten years after founding L’Artisan Parfumeur. M. Laporte is one of the fathers of niche/independent perfumery. As any perfume lover understands L’Artisan is still well-known today. Now the Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier collection is getting a second chance. I’ll focus on one of my favorite summer vetivers from the brand Maitre Parfumeuer et Gantier Route du Vetiver.

Route du Vetiver was a part of the debut collection in 1988. After reading about these perfumes online in the early 2000’s I sought them out on a trip to NYC. I spent an entire day trying all that was there in the little shop. It was summertime and the one which I wanted to take home in the heat and humidity was Route du Vetiver. It has been a part of every summer since for almost twenty years.

Jean-Francois Laporte

This perfume is a celebration of the green freshness of vetiver. It begins with a vegetal green top accord as leafy green ingredients are combined with blackcurrant buds. This creates a sticky sap-like effect. A set of aldehydes lighten things up. It reminds me of a breeze through a dense set of vines.

The vetiver used here is a gorgeous grassy version. It has a citrus-tinted freshness which is what makes vetiver such a natural for warm weather. M. Laporte entwines strands of slightly indolic jasmine through the vetiver. It adds a bit of rough texture and floral depth. This rests upon a base accord of creamy sandalwood and animalic musks. The latter twins to the indoles in the jasmine.

Route du Vetiver has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I tried a sample of the recent formulation and compared to my older one. The most significant difference is in the sandalwood. Back then it was a different source than it is now. To me it adds a sharper focus on the base accord in the 2021 version over the older bottle. The current version is still amazing.

To my mind Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier remains one of the great perfume brands, even today. In these resurrections Bahiana and Iris Bleu Gris are also fantastic examples of the beginnings of niche. I am thrilled that the brand is back in the air so any perfume lover can find it on their radar. When you do be prepared for a treat.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased, and a sample of the current formulation provided by Neiman-Marcus.

Mark Behnke