Periodically perfume people mourn the death of the chypre. It’s supposed to be down to the restrictions on oakmoss which was the constituent that gave the chypres so much salty depth and dryness. Now you cannot use oakmoss in amounts large enough to produce the chypre effect, or you have to use low atranol oakmoss which is, from the chypre’s perspective, rather like trying to pass off a gelding as a stallion. You just know something is missing.
Among those who comment about perfumes these days the positions on chypres are mixed. Perfumistas sorrow over their absence but in practically the same sentence they also accuse them of formality, of masculinity, or of being difficult to wear. Still there are many good ones to be found on the internet.
If you like dense fruity chypres, Balenciaga’s Rumba is a strong and interesting option, somewhat animalic, one of Jean Claude Ellena’s early perfumes. If you enjoy something more floral, there is always Apercu, Houbigant’s nearly forgotten offering. It is actually from the late nineties, but it smells vintage. In a season where Annick Goutal’s Mon Parfum Cheri Par Camille is getting excellent reviews, some people might want to return to the Houbigant and Balenciaga scents for half the price, and their coziness in cold weather.
Some reviewers, Turin and Sanchez in particular, call the green type of chypre haughty. This is kind of like calling dark chocolate standoffish because its melt rate on your tongue is just not fast enough to suit you, but Rochas’ Mystere, Clinique’s Wrappings, and Scherrer’s Scherrer are all good green chypres with very elegant presences, and just enough reserve to make their ultimate warmth charming. Also, they’re easily wearable by both sexes.
If we are middle aged we remember the chypres as something our mothers wore, if we’re young it’s our grandmothers, and therefore we’re conditioned to associate chypres with being old and perhaps we perceive the old as haughty, although in my experience, aging is one of nature’s great equalizers and the most ineluctably democratic force on earth.
If we are me, we associate them with being a teenager, since I wore them then. Perhaps most of all, they conjure up a lost world of Madison Ave. admen on their way home to Westport, in the cocktail car that Metro North used to run on weekdays. Guts made that same trip only a few years ago for a week. “How was it, being a commuter?” I asked.
“ Dismal. It was all guys, and they slept, snored, drooled, and one farted all the way from Grand Central to Darien.”
“ Different guys, same routine every trip. It never got old.”
Alas for the classic chypres, some younger consumers may feel that they smell like that train car Guts exited so gratefully and that unlike the commuters’ routine, the chypres have gotten old. But this is also and paradoxically, the chypre’s strong suit because these scents survive such conditions far better than florals, which inevitably droop or wilt, and better than colognes which have punched out long before five p.m., or even orientals, which disrupt meetings and cocktail hour with distracting wafts of incense and vanilla.
Chypres acknowledge and embrace the human, the stinky side of existence, the inescapable fact that we are not just denizens of the avenue and the boardroom, but also of the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and that inexorably for all of us, mortality is the constant in the equation, the lowest, the ultimate, common denominator.