If Boy were a fictional character, it would be: Sydney Carton from A Tale Of Two Cities.
If it were an item of clothing, it would be: a double-breasted, beige jacket.
If it were an image, it would be: Bathers (aka Divers) by George Hoyningen-Huene.
I get the feeling Olivier Polge is having fun at Chanel. His Eau Vive flanker to Chance fizzed with more exuberance than we'd seen from the brand for a while. And the well-regarded Misia saw him enjoy a carefree romp through violet fields taken straight from perfumery's golden years. His latest creation, Boy - part of the limited-distribution Exclusif range - suggests that he remains in a liberated mode, even if, in terms of its olfactory profile, it isn't anywhere near as attention-grabbing as its predecessors.
Named (with unexpected bravery, I'd say) after the man frequently described as Gabrielle Chanel's one true love - Arthur 'Boy' Capel, killed in a car crash at the age of 38 - this new scent is noteworthy for several reasons. For a start, it's a welcome case of Polge revisiting an activity he's turned into something of a specialty: gender bending. Way back in 2005, his Dior Homme allowed men to wear a larger slice of sweet apple pie than they'd been permitted for years. In 2012, Florabotanica (co-authored with Jean-Christophe Herault for Balenciaga) suggested that the roses with which women cover their skin ought to be made of testosterone-laced iron. And now Boy riffs on that most masculine of perfumery genres, the fougère, attempting to relieve it of its facial hair - so as to make it a realistic prospect for female wearers - without cutting off its cojones. The odd bit of stray stubble aside, the exercise works well: the herbs and lavender required to give a fougère its dad-in-a-barbershop fougèr-iness are intact, but their edges have been softened with a suggestion of powdery rose and, more overtly, geranium*. Yes, it's a perfumery trick we've seen before - think: Caron's 3e Homme - but its power is undiminished.
Equally interesting is the fact that Boy is only the second Exclusif inspired by a specific person. Perfume-as-biography endeavours may be common in the niche world, but they're not a regular occurrence in the mainstream. Taken as a scent-portrait, Polge's presentation of Coco's paramour yields fascinating results and, like so many artworks rooted in specificity, it appears to make comments of a much wider scope. The 'Boy' in this scent is virile, but not aggressive. He's present but he doesn't draw the spotlight to himself. He speaks clearly, but he doesn't raise his voice. Following Dior Homme's depiction of masculinity a decade ago, could Boy's nouveau-homme personality be read as an updated take on manliness? It's a compelling thought.
Or maybe, as was the case with Misia, Boy is not so much about looking ahead but about nostalgia. Certainly, with its softness, its soapy inflection and its refusal to stray far from the wearer's skin, it comes closer than anything I've smelt for years to Houbigant's original Fougère Royale, the scent which may well have been worn by Arthur Capel himself and which, for decades, dictated the concept of what it means to smell like a man.
Nostalgic or not, there's a quality about Boy that's very Chanel, which brings me back to my point about attention-grabbing. The scent's components are legible, but they're subtle. Its volume control is never turned too high, aligning it with the brand's quintessential masculine, Pour Monsieur, as well as the Exlusif range's standout guy-friendly composition, Bel Respiro. Restrained elegance is the modus operandi here. This may come as a disappointment for those hoping for a release with more clout, but it's entirely in keeping with the perfume's subject, and it's a credit to Polge's craftsmanship that he hasn't given in to the temptation to depict a poseur. This Boy is so charming, it's hard not to fall in love with him, despite the reticence of his whispers... or should that be 'because of'?
[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Chanel in 2016.]
* If you fancy being really geeky, compare Boy with Polge's other recent take on the fougère form, co-authored by Jean-Christopher Herault: Fougère Furieuse for Mugler. It's a much louder composition, overtly marketed at women.