It always pays to look back at an impatiently expected release and the reactions it provoked, after all the hype has died down…
Last year’s Kelly Calèche was a surprisingly divisive offering on the part of the universally respected house of Hermès and its adulated (justifiably so) in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena.
A leather scent seemed like a no-brainer for a company that started out as saddlery. Though, sadly, Hermès has discontinued Guy Robert’s masterful 1955 aldehydic floral leather Doblis, its limited reedition in 2004 meant that many perfume lovers knew it well enough to use it as a touchstone for any other Hermès leather scent (the 1986 Bel Ami being another, rougher reference). Which left Jean-Claude Ellena with a conundrum: how to avoid repeating Doblis, or indeed re-doing leather with the usual classic materials (birch tar, isobutyl-quinolin, styrax, castoreum, etc); bringing to bear his trademark, less-is-more Ellena touch on what is usually a rather pungent genre.
To do so, Ellena decided to dispense entirely with leather per se, and to achieve the effect through a conjuring trick, with flowers traditionally used in the tanning process, two of which (iris and mimosa – though I smell cassie rather than mimosa) already have leathery facets, topped off with the citrusy note that usually crowns leather fragrances. Narcissus, also listed, has a distinctly horsey/tobacco facet, as anyone who’s experienced L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Fleur de Narcisse 2006 will attest.
The result is – or should be – a soft, vegetal, implicit leather: the soles on the shoes of an angel, to reprise Ellena’s poetic description, inspired by the French writer Jean Giono. Herein lies the rub: most leather fragrance lovers found it wanting, and dismissed it as a pleasant, if somewhat wishy-washy floral; fans of, say, 24 Faubourg seemed to get nothing but saddle and stable.
How I envy the latter! Squint as a may, I can only just barely get leather out of Kelly Calèche, and that’s really because I’ve been told it’s there. Conversely – or is it perversely? You never know with leather lovers – I’m sure I would’ve detected it if the scent hadn’t been described as leather in any shape or form. What I do get, once I get past my initial dismay, is one of Ellena’s many variations on the smell of water. Kelly Calèche is all about rain-drenched blossoms, mimosa, rose and iris floating in puddles after a Spring squall: it could be another “Jardin”. The inner tension between Ellena’s desire as a perfumer (vegetal-water-immateriality) and Hermès’ brief (leather-saddlery heritage) may be what flaws Kelly Calèche, makes it so indecisive, though utterly lovely in its wan way.
Now Hermès seems to have responded to the wishes of the disappointed leather lovers who cried out for a Kelly Calèche Extrême, by releasing a version in parfum concentration, in a flashy padlock-shaped flacon which reproduces, on a larger scale, the padlock of the iconic Kelly Bag. What’s being promoted is the covetable object, and the juice itself seems almost like an afterthought. One can easily (though not happily) envision Jean-Claude Ellena being dragged kicking and screaming back into his lab to reformulate his pale brainchild and make her sturdier. The man cannot possibly enjoy padding out his creations…
The parfum is not notably different from the eau de toilette, but the drizzle has stopped and the flowers have been sponged off, so that the water-gorged effect is less prominent: blossoms in pastel rather than watercolor. There may be jasmine added; certainly, the tuberose seems more prominent with its minty haze. Somehow, this increase in definition decreases its Ellena character: though still entirely recognizable, the Kelly Calèche parfum is more of a traditional floral than the amphibian vegetal-animal mutant it was when it crawled out of the garden after a storm…
But leather, you say? No, I still don’t get any leather….
The new parfum is also sold in 15 ml flacons, in a collection of miniature Calèche-style bottles, along with 24 Faubourg, Calèche and Parfum des Merveilles, for 156 euros. The new padlock flacon contains 7.5 ml and costs 140 euros; 71 euro refills are available.
Image: Cy Twombly, Nicola's Irises