Friday, 24 October 2014

Persolaise Review: L'Homme Ideal from Guerlain (Thierry Wasser; 2014)

It's probably fair to say that Guerlain is in a tricky position. On the one hand, it has to satisfy its owners by churning out a steady stream of till-friendly products. But on the other, it's under pressure to uphold its reputation as one of the most revered perfume houses, an obligation which, these days, doesn't often square up with creating the sorts of scents that attract Sephora-worthy commercial success. Thierry Wasser, the brand's current in-house perfumer, has been extremely candid when describing the tensions which exist between his impulses as a scent-maker and the motivations of the brand's marketeers. For instance, in a recent interview (please click here to read it) he questioned the wisdom behind the Shalimar Parfum Initial concept and he went so far as to state that the policy of releasing endless flankers of popular scents is nothing less than a "sickness".

This tug-of-war between the various Powers That Be at Guerlain is on full display in their latest masculine, L'Homme Ideal, their first all-new male scent since 2008's Guerlain Homme (also composed by Wasser). It is, without any question, a mainstream creation. Precisely what this means is a subject that could be debated at some length. A little while ago, I took part in a podcast discussion in which this very question was raised, and my fellow panellists and I couldn't quite agree on a definition of 'mainstream' expressed in terms of stylistic codes; in the end, we decided that 'mainstream' and 'niche' are useful only as indicators of scales of distribution. However, if 'mainstream' does have any sort of style-related meaning, it's probably related to notions of complexity and legibility. Forgive the crass generalisation, but 'niche' creations tend to be relatively multi-layered and lucid, whereas 'mainstream' scents are usually the opposite: they are flatter and more simplistic. but paradoxically, they also obscure their intentions behind an opaque gauze, as though they're too timid to let their true personalities - mono-dimensional though they may be - enter the foreground.

L'Homme Ideal isn't particularly profound. It doesn't prompt the wearer to take breath after breath in an effort to absorb a richly textured olfactory landscape. It doesn't cause any skipped heartbeats. But it is pleasant and fun to wear. And even though it clearly has its sights set on customers' pennies, it doesn't go down the route followed by so many of the other masculine scents which have recently been inflicted on us by other brands. In other words, it isn't Bleu De Chanel. It isn't Dior Homme Eau For Men. And it certainly isn't the soul-crushing 'let's stick some harsh woods over synthetic sandalwood' catastrophe of the likes of Versace's Eros, Jimmy Choo's Man or Karl Lagerfeld's Pour Homme. Even though it wants to be seen as a credible candidate for the mainstream camp, it can't quite sell its entire soul to the devil of the department store.

How does this streak of non-conformity manifest itself? That's easy to answer: it's in the bitter almond note which lies at the core of the composition. Wasser has publicly expressed his admiration of Aimé Guerlain's use of this particular material (not least in Jicky), so perhaps this is his attempt to revitalise it for a modern audience. In L'Homme Ideal, its presence is, indeed, bitter: there's an astringency to the scent's opening which is unlike most of what's found in contemporary masculines. However, the anarchic streak isn't permitted to last for long, and the scent soon resolves itself into a friendly, approachable, mid-80s vanillic woody drydown, not a million miles away from the ambery smoothness of the brand's own Heritage. There's plenty of coumarin in there too - from tonka beans, perhaps - which echoes the fuzziness of YSL's Body Kouros, although here, its personality is less strident.

A few commentators have stated that they see L'Homme Ideal as the masculine counterpart of La Petite Robe Noire. I confess this isn't a connection I'd made myself, and although I can now discern it intellectually (both works move from sharp, fruity openings to sweeter bases) it doesn't resonate with me on a visceral level. Personally, I'd make a link with another Guerlain (thanks to a nudge I recently received from a knowledgeable soul). Seek out Wasser's own Tonka Imperiale - from the brand's L'Art & Le Matière range - and you'll find that it, too, features the bitter almond + vanilla combo. But here, the accord is served as a slice of 'niche luxury': it's dressed up with herbs, liqueur notes and dessert facets, and its rougher edges are concealed beneath judiciously piped rosettes of chantilly. That said, Tonka Imperiale isn't quite niche enough to be niche, in the same way that L'Homme Ideal isn't fully mainstream. The two scents are flip sides of the same, problematic coin which Guerlain keep flicking into the air.

Their recent re-issue of La Petite Robe Noire saw the coin land perfectly on its edge: commercial success and - to an extent - critical acclaim were lavished on the perfume. But I wonder if L'Homme Ideal will pull off the same trick. My gut feeling - and I sincerely hope I'm proved wrong - is that it won't... and that when the attention of shoppers turns to Christmas, they'll decide to play it safe and they'll throw their cash one more time at Bleu De Chanel.

[Review based on a sample of eau de toilette provided by Guerlain in 2014.]


PS Since the above was written, Guerlain's UK advertising plans for L'Homme Ideal have become increasingly clear. The brand isn't a household name on these shores and its presence on television and in print media is almost nil compared to the likes of Dior and Chanel. But the boat is obviously being pushed out on this occasion. A little while ago, several traffic lights along Oxford Street were taken over by promotional material for the scent. And a few retailers appear to be giving it a conscious push. Who knows... perhaps Wasser's man will give Chanel's a good run for his money after all... 

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