Leather tends to exist almost exclusively in the domain of male fragrances.
Only with the passing of time and much experimentation, as well as curiosity about incorporating elements that transcend gender have we come closer to a better example of unisex fragrance that isn’t simply citrus/floral/aquatic/oriental. Nowhere is this better seen than in the niche fragrance market where perfumers have the leeway to experiment and break down some of those barriers. Our tastes have also changed so that some women’s fragrances are being worn by men, although the inverse is not usually true. Guerlain’s Shalimar and Jicky are two very good examples of niches that fill one fragrance, but that some men also prefer to a purely “male” fragrance.
And vice-versa. How else can I explain my wife raiding my fragrance collection from time to time?
It was in seeking out fragrances with “leather” notes that I discovered Habit Rouge, and got a sample with much anticipation and promise. Was my anticipation met and the fragrance everything I’d hoped?
Guerlain Habit Rouge (1965): Yes, I’m reviewing a fragrance that my dad — provided that he wore them — might have used. The question I asked myself in reviewing this fragrance was that, given its age, if this was a timeless classic or simply a fragrance well past its prime. It’s a challenging dilemma, one I’ve rethought once or twice before my decision.
Habit Rouge isn’t a simple fragrance, with eighteen separate major notes, although it’s not the most complex and not exuberant in any respect. The top notes are composed of basil, orange, lemon, bergamot and Brazilian Rosewood, which gradually fades into a very complex heart of rose, carnation, jasmine, patchouli, cinnamon, sandalwood and cedar. The final base is composed of oakmoss, benzoin, leather, amber, labdanum and vanilla. Obviously, this is a lot to process over the life of the fragrance.
Given the amount of stimulus to process, it’s a good idea to step back and remove any and all expectations that one may have to fully appreciate the product. I’ll admit that was my first mistake in viewing this as a “leather base-note fragrance”. This is not a linear leather scent as noted from the components. Once I removed that perception from mind, I tried to recapture this from the perspective of a blank canvas. What did Jean-Paul Guerlain intend this to be?
The experience from the opening is somewhat harsh until the fragrance warms beyond the acidity of the orange/lemon mixture. While the basil and rosewood tone it back a bit, the bergamot tended to have the opposite effect and brighten it back up to a higher level of sharpness. This lasted the first 10 minutes, give or take, and then the heart began to blend in, which was spice/wood/floral. This felt like more a woody oriental than a calming amber and leather scent, and that took a long while to become more apparent. Once the citrus and florals dissipate, you finally reach the base and it transforms into yet a different fragrance, much calmer, softer yet masculine; however, this takes a while and the impact isn’t as instantaneous as one might prefer. I finally get oakmoss, leather, amber and labdanum, and I’m told that it smells much like a tack-room for those who can relate to owning horses or being in a stable. For me, the aroma didn’t quite reach that crescendo.
So I’ll harken back to my original questions:
- Was this a leather fragrance? No.
- Was this a timeless classic or well past its prime? I’ll keep you in suspense briefly and reveal my answer.
Habit Rouge is a difficult fragrance to define, and even more difficult to describe. There are some perfumes you can summarize as “Pineapple and musk” (Creed Aventus) or “Vanilla” (Bond No 9 I Love New York For All), but this manages to defy that simple compartmentalization. Without question, it’s a unique masculine scent. The truth is that you won’t see if commonly, nor will you smell it randomly on the street from someone, at least someone under the age of 50+. With that, I present my verdict:
Rating: 2.5/5. Not recommended for ‘under-60+’.
Bottom-Line: The truth here is that this is a classic piece of history that not many people will fully appreciate, and I recognize that some elements were lost on me as well. I hinted earlier that I’m reviewing a piece old enough for my dad to have worn it, and Habit Rouge is still reflective of that period. It has become more difficult to find save for certain discounters and Web retailers (it’s almost purely the retail domain of Saks and Neiman Marcus). It is vintage, good or bad.
It’s not particularly modern. You’ll be the only man in the room wearing it. While I wouldn’t want to tweak it to be something it is not, I’m still somehow apprehensive with it to feel it deserving of more than a neutral review. It’s not a ’blind-buy’. Though still considered by Guerlain to be part of a more mass-market demographic, it’s the odd-duck in that segment.
I will simply say that this is an acquired taste, reflective of a period piece, and has seen its time pass.