A Chinese magazine – of all things – has asked me to compile a list of the top ten classics of the past two decades. Which led me to ask myself what criteria a contemporary fragrance should fulfill to achieve such a status. These are the three I came up with:
1) Originality: To create new forms or to renew a classic form in such a way that it finds a second life.
2) Fertility: To inspire a perfume family and/or enough imitations for this new form to cross over into our olfactory vocabulary.
3) Popularity: To be bought by enough people for the product to produce durable identification with it. In other words: it needs to sell enough to cross over into our social vocabulary.
This means that no niche perfume can make the cut. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two niche fragrances that are iconic, at least on the French market: L’Artisan Parfumeur Mûre et Musc and Annick Goutal L’Eau d’Hadrien. But both pre-date 1990 so couldn’t make it to the list, and besides, I’m not quite sure they are as popular abroad as they are in France. Big brands are the only ones with enough clout and lasting power to ensure that their products reach enough of the population to become as iconic as the classics of past eras.
So that in establishing my list of post-1990 classics to present to the Chinese market, the popularity (and widespread availability) criterion effectively eliminated all of my personal favourites, except Féminité du Bois and N°5 Eau Première. It’s also forced me to list two scents I can’t stand, perhaps because their popularity means I’ve overdosed on them, Angel and L’Eau d’Issey. I struggled to include a Guerlain, and if Guet-Apens/Attrape-coeur had been more widely distributed (not to mention if it hadn’t been discontinued) it would have made the list in a flash. But the rest? You can’t say the house has been launched influential perfumes in the past 20 years. I also considered the overwhelmingly popular Dior J’Adore: it’s excellent, but original? Not so much.
The list is also fairly Franco-centric. That, of course, reflects my own bias: Estée Lauder Pleasures and Calvin Klein CKOne should have made the cut, the first because its pink pepper-peony-musk notes have been widely imitated, the second because it became a cultural phenomenon and pioneered the unisex trend. But since I was asked for ten selections… And for China, no less. Here they are, in chronological order:
Thierry Mugler Angel by Olivier Cresp (1992): The first gourmand, one of the most widely-imitated products in the industry, and one that still tops best-seller lists, at least in France, after nearly two decades.
Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey by Jacques Cavallier (1992): Not technically the first aquatic since Davidoff Cool Water (1988), Aramis New West For Him (1988) and For Her (1990) and Calvin Klein Escape (1991) pre-date it, but possibly the most iconic and, with Cool Water in the masculine side of the aisle, still going as strong as ever.
Serge Lutens, formerly Shiseido Féminité du Bois by Pierre Bourdon and Christopher Sheldrake (1992): Reintroduced the wood family for women, 70 years after Chanel’s Bois des Iles. Now that it’s been repatriated into the Serge Lutens brand, it’s moved out of the mainstream, but as the matrix of the Lutens style, which has had a strong influence on the industry, it makes the cut.
Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert by Jean-Claude Ellena (1992): This groundbreaking composition reintroduced a genre that had lingered in the margins since Après l’Ondée: fragrances capturing an atmosphere rather than being an extension of a male or female persona. It was also one of the first expressions of a clear, limpid style at a time when perfumes were busy, heady, scenery-chewing things.
Lolita Lempicka by Annick Menardo (1997): As Luca Turin observed in The Guide, this may be the only one of Angel’s offspring to present enough originality not to be considered derivative. I would have rather included Menardo’s amazing Bulgari Black but much as I love it, it seems to be lingering on bottom shelves and possibly being phased out. So that it was a toss-up between Lolita Lempicka and another Menardo gem, Dior Hypnotic Poison, a flanker that defied expectations by actually gaining sales over the years even though it was no longer supported by advertising campaigns until recently.
Cartier Déclaration by Jean-Claude Ellena (1998): The template for a significant portion of the masculines that came after it. It vies with JCE’s Terre d’Hermès as the default choice of Frenchmen who find Guerlain Vétiver and Habit Rouge, Caron Pour un Homme and Dior Eau Sauvage a little too reminiscent of daddy.
Flower by Kenzo by Alberto Morillas (2000): The epitome of contemporary perfumery: a static, radiant, powdery haze that manages to convey both sensuality and innocence.
Narciso Rodriguez for Her by Christine Nagel and Francis Kurkdjian (2004): “Make it clean and sexy” must be the brief for 99 per cent of the feminine fragrances on the planet, and For Her scores high marks on both counts. Perhaps the best example of the “what you sniff when you spritz is what you get all day” contemporary school of perfumery, and of consistency between a brand and a fragrance product.
Dior Homme by Olivier Polge (2005): Olivier Polge dared to go where no masculine fragrance had gone before, by designing Dior Homme as a setting for the soft, powdery note of iris. One of those fragrances other perfumers regret they didn’t come up with. And, surefire sign of a classic: it’s filched by women.
Chanel N°5 Eau Première by Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake (2008): I hesitated before including it since it’s still too recent to be a modern classic, but I couldn’t not put a Chanel in the list. I’m pretty sure Coco Mademoiselle is more popular, but I find it less distinctive and as one of the best examples of the reinterpretation of a classic done right, N°5 Eau Première rates high.
Now berate me, abuse me, say I’ve overlooked obvious choices…
What would be your list of the classics of the past 20 years?
Illustration: Brandt on Haffner by Bertrand Lavier, 1984.