Perfumes ought to be devoid of gender. I say they ought to be, but as a practical matter they’re not. One perfumer, however, has gone a long way towards changing people’s opinions of what is masculine and what is feminine in scent.
Francis Kurkdijian did a floral masculine for Gaultier that, for once, sold very well. Le Male is said by some reviewers to smell like lavender, and by others to smell of orange blossom. I come down on the orange blossom side myself, but what isn’t debatable is that Le Male was a success. It wasn’t the first floral for men. That probably started with Givenchy’s Insense, which was not a hit, but was a good fragrance. It wasn’t until the release of Le Male that the industry got a floral masculine to fly with the public.
Shortly afterwards, Kurkdijian got a Guerlain brief. He was one of the first three perfumers contributing to their Art et Matiere line and Rose Barbare was his work.
I remember smelling the scent a year or two after it came out and being less than impressed by it. It wasn’t that it was bad. Far from it. But it was overly familiar in that Coriandre style so prevalent in the seventies. There were many roses with wood: Sinan, Maroc, Mon Parfum, Enchanting Dance, even, for Pete’s sake, Diva, which is still around today and said to be pretty good.
If you were going to release something in the roses and wood style, you needed to butch it up, and this for various unknowable reasons the folks are Guerlain were not willing to do. It was too bad, because taking floral notes and making them rather tough is just what M. Kurkdijian excels at. The only appreciable attempt at that in Rose Barbare is the addition of a distinct pepper note which makes it part company with the above mentioned rose chypres. The very same note is in Van Cleef and Arpels’ Cologne Noire and is almost enough to make that perfume desirable – but unfortunately there, it does not persist.
As with most Guerlains, the notable aspect of the scent is its suavity but the house style is at odds with a formula that perhaps to suit its ideal wearer (masculine) needs rough edges. It became a very near miss in a stellar career. If Kurkdijian can make men wear flowers what’s next? A floral aldehyde for men?