How do you make a fougère that has enough fougère-ness to justify the label but not so much that it smells like a disappointing cliche? That's precisely the challenge faced by Houbigant when they decided to resurrect what's often referred to as the original modern perfume: Fougère Royale. Created in the 1880s by Paul Parquet, it was the first fragrance to contain synthetic coumarin. Although the substance exists as a component of several widely-used natural materials - such as hay absolute and tonka beans - Parquet's use of the synthetic version in his composition marked a genuine entry into previously uncharted waters.
Historical achievements notwithstanding, the world has changed a fair bit in the last 130 years: Fougère Royale was discontinued several decades ago, the usage of coumarin is currently restricted and tastes in perfumery are markedly different, especially when it comes to fougères. Precisely because it was so influential all those decades ago, Parquet's accord of bergamot, lavender, geranium, moss and coumarin now spells 'dad's boring after shave' to a whole generation of perfume-lovers anxious to create their own olfactory landscapes by rejecting certain smells favoured by their parents and grandparents. Of course, this doesn't mean that the genre is no longer successful. Far from it: several variations on the original theme have turned out to be some of the most popular masculines of the last few years. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that Penhaligon's added another chapter to the fougère story with Bertrand Duchaufour's Sartorial. But despite these occasional highlights, the general view is that the fougère is stuck in the past, that it's a scent for the sort of guy who shudders at the thought of wearing a bright silk tie and is sent into paroxysms of agitation when he sees that the shelves at his local supermarket are stocked with moisturisers and anti-wrinkle creams for men.
You'd have thought that Houbigant would've buckled under the weight of all this social pressure and preferred to leave Parquet's creation to the myths of the past, but clearly someone somewhere in their hierarchy thought it would be a good idea to re-make the scent. The question was how. It turns out that the answer was to keep things simple and expensive: get your naturals from Robertet, your synthetics from Givaudan and ensure that the new composition places greater emphasis on the middle section rather than the drydown, which is where dad's boring after shave has the greatest potential to make its unwanted presence known.
The 2010 reformulation of Fougère Royale - presented in an elegantly weighty, Lalique-inspired flacon - serves as a reminder that the genre is essentially designed to be a fresh evocation of the outdoors. Citrus oils - so potent you'd think a lemon was being squeezed right under your nose - instantly send you back to the first sunny weekend of the summer, when you rediscover your short-sleeve shirts and spend Sunday morning reading the papers in the garden. The masterfully blended lavender-rose-geranium heart accord propels you into a memory of an evening in August when you and your loved one went for a long walk through a field and the sun didn't set until 10 o'clock. And yes, when the drydown arrives, the slightly sweaty mossiness does evoke a composite image of all the male authority figures of your childhood and their faded blue shirts, but the tremendous quality of the whole product bypasses many of these negative associations and allows you to re-appreciate the curious, smoky, almondy, hay-like characteristics of coumarin.
It'll be interesting to see how this release performs at the till. A part of me thinks that the careful balance of its blend might turn it into a perfume equivalent of a Jack of all trades, master of none: most people will find it very pleasant, but perhaps few will consider it sufficiently exciting to purchase. This would be a real shame. Although I'm generally not a fougère fan, there are some days when I'm fed up with niche artfulness and I just want to wear something that says 'masculine' in no uncertain terms. Fougère Royale fits the bill very well. It pronounces the word in a manner that is calm, authoritative and cultured without making you think you've been sucked back to the Time That Style Forgot. Despite all the odds, it's a pretty impressive triumph.
[The official press release for Fougère Royale lists Roja Dove and Rodrigo Flores-Roux as its creators; review based on a sample of eau de parfum obtained in 2010; fragrance tested on skin.]
Please note: I had planned to hold a giveaway for a sample of Fougère Royale. However, I decided it would be better to postpone it so that it doesn't interfere with Saturday's very special draw. I'll run it at some point in the week beginning 6th December.]