I've never really liked the name Habit Rouge. For the two of you out there who may not already know this, it roughly translates as 'hunting red' and it is the equestrian association that has always bothered me. Perhaps I'm just being too English about this - do other countries have similar public dramas about blood sports? - but I know where I stand on the fox hunting debate and it isn't on the side that would wish to promote the activity by wearing a perfume which alludes to it. Then there's also the fact that I don't find the fragrance especially red, but more on its attributes in a moment. Fortunately, its name is the only thing I dislike about Habit Rouge; as far as I'm concerned, everything else about it is a miracle of perfume artistry. And, as a culmination of my special posts this week marking the scent's 50th anniversary, I've decided to put together a special Persolaise tribute to everything that makes it special.
Created as an eau de cologne in 1965* by Jean-Paul Guerlain - who, by that stage in his career, had already made Vetiver and Chant D'Arômes - it is generally considered to be the first oriental for men: a masculine counterpart to the empress of all orientals, Shalimar, composed by Jean-Paul's grandfather, Jacques. Inspired by the world of show-jumping, dressage and weekends at the races, it took a while to find an appreciative audience, but when it did, the strength of its appeal grew to colossal proportions. It has never been a massive seller in the UK, but in France, it is rarely out of the Top 10 charts and, together with the likes of Eau Sauvage, it has become the scent of several generations of continental gents.
Of course, the question to which everyone would love to have the answer is, 'Why?' What is it about the perfume that caught people's imagination to such a powerful degree? My own response would be a simple: 'Because it's amazing!' But that's no explanation. And besides, there are plenty of gorgeous scents which, for inexplicable reasons, never make it big.
Industry figures have their own theories as to why Habit Rouge grew into the phenomenon that it did - indeed, some of their views have been published on this blog over the last few days - but my personal opinion relates to the scent's incomparable sense of wholeness. It is, to my mind, the most comprehensive, the most multi-faceted and the most thoughtful olfactory representation of masculinity ever poured into a bottle. Its bergamot top - so deliciously sharp - represents energy and vigour. Its leather facet - baked in the auburn heat of some mythical desert - stands for physical prowess and virility. And its powdery vanilla base - always appetising and melodic but never too sticky - is the very definition of sensuousness.
But there's so much more. The orange blossom hints at a sensitive, artistic temperament. The herbs and aromatics suggest a love of the outdoors. The incense reflects spirituality. And then there's the heartbreaking contrast between the dryness and the sweetness. And the impeccable balance with which all the elements have been assembled and co-ordinated. I could go on and on... which in itself indicates the greatness of the work in question.
I'm often asked to say what my favourite perfume is, and usually, I'm able to brush the question away by claiming that it's impossible to answer. But if I'm pressed, I reply that, even though my mind is liable to change from one day to the next, most of the time, my gold medal goes to Habit Rouge. It locks onto the very contours of my soul in a way few other scents manage, quickening my pulse and causing my spirit to reach towards the skies. It is constant, faithful and attentive. And it always, without fail, makes me feel like I've come home.
Over the years, Habit Rouge has been presented in several different versions. Below, you'll find my brief guide to the (almost!) current range.
Although recently discontinued, this is still fairly easy to find, which is why I've included it here. Released in 2009 it was, as you might expect from its name, a more translucent version of the original, bursting with weightless, effervescent top notes. As a sort of sweet, leathery cologne, it worked extremely well. In fact, many people who lamented the loss of the Eau Légère version of Shalimar turned to Habit Rouge Sport for consolation.
The latest member of Team HR is arguably the least oriental. Composed in 2011 by current in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser, it almost completely dispenses with base notes, choosing to focus on the citrus/floral interplay of the top and heart sections. As an entry-level Habit Rouge, it paves the way quite well for the wonders of the holy trinity below.
In 2003, Jean-Paul Guerlain revisited his own creation and turned it into this weightier, more single-minded older brother. With a greater emphasis on woods and burnt notes - and, allegedly, the inclusion of some oud - it is unquestionably recognisable as Habit Rouge, but it carries more baggage, literally and metaphorically. If the edt is Michelangelo's David, then the edp is Rodin's Thinker.
Extrait-strength creations of masculine creations remain something of a rarity. Indeed, this particular iteration of Habit Rouge can be found only in a few places around the world (if you'd like to try it, your best port of call would be the boutique on the Champs Élysées). However, limited availability notwithstanding, it is a bona fide member of the clan and it was composed by Jean-Paul Guerlain himself, which is why it has to be mentioned here. Created in 2008, it is perhaps the most temperamental version of the scent. At first sniff, it appears determined to keep its secrets to itself, refusing to reveal many facets of its personality. But given time, it begins to relax. And after about three or four hours on skin, its drydown - heavy on resins and balsams - creates a church-organ swell of swooning intoxication.
Although it must have been tweaked over the years, Jean-Paul Guerlain's 1965 original (or is it the 1988 re-working?)* remains the best of the bunch, probably because it displays the most interesting contrasts. Everything just seems to fit into place here. The citruses work well with the herbs, which fall into place near the leather, which sits happily next to the floral notes, which slot neatly over the vanilla. The luminosity is just right. The pitch is spot-on. The rhythm is irresistible. In short, it is as perfect as a scent could be. And yes, if I had to rescue one bottle from a house going up in flames, this would almost certainly be it.
* There is some conflicting information regarding the first version of Habit Rouge. I'll leave the details to the historians, but for the moment, I think it's safe to assert that the original, 1965 version was an eau de cologne and that the eau de toilette version emerged in 1988.
UPDATE 6TH NOVEMBER 2015: For my review of Habit Rouge Dress Code, a limited edition composition released to mark the 50th anniversary, please click here.