Described by Luca Turin as “one of the ten best masculine perfumes of all time”, Guerlain’s Derby went relatively unnoticed during its first incarnation and continues to be a quiet performer amongst Guerlain’s men’s offer. The fragrance was originally housed in Guerlain’s flacon aigle (eagle bottle) from 1985-1993, which Pochet et du Courval produced for Guerlain in a number of sizes. After Derby’s discontinuation the fragrance reemerged in 2005 as part Guerlain’s collection, Les Parisiens. This time it was presented in the house’s iconic bee bottle. Today’s Derby is presented in simple rectangular glass with a wooden frame, a change that affected all of the masculine Les Parisiens in early 2011. Categorized as a leather chypre, Derby has a kind of Mitsouko femininity that is paired with masculine leather notes. Jean-Paul Guerlain was inspired to create the formula following a visit to El Djem, a Tunisian amphitheatre built by the Romans. Les Parisiens’ Derby is said to have experienced some reformulation to comply with IFRA restrictions on oakmoss levels, implemented during the perfume’s absence from sales counters at the end of the century. An increased level of oakmoss may have given Derby more of a gladiator veneer in comparison to Les Parisiens’ Derby, which has a powdery softness and feels more like a Medici court than a Roman sports arena. In the end it comes down to personal taste. Although reformulation is highly frowned upon by perfume collectors, Guerlain’s Les Parisiens have been tastefully refurbished. Both Derby and L’Ame d’un Heros are rumoured to have received minor adjustments, giving them a timeless appeal. As many men’s fragrances from this era of perfume history feel overly heavy, dated and are a caricature of masculinity I am more than happy with the newer versions.
The unmistakable chypre accord is immediately present once the fragrance contacts skin. The masculine leather notes are hidden below layers of citrus dominated by signature Guerlain florals, jasmine and orange blossom. Amongst the flowers are a number of spices that feel similar to Coriolan, another Guerlain from the mid-90s inspired by ancient Rome. Once the floral notes have evaporated a woody base appears flanked with patchouli, birch, leather and musk. Overall the effect is honeyed leather and one of my favourite silages in men’s perfume.
One of the advantages of Guerlain’s bee bottle is the ability to control the application, a benefit not given with today’s spray bottle. Two conservative dabs seem plenty to get through a day of wear. Like many 1980s perfumes, caution is needed when applying the scent as over application can make your eyes water. Derby is no exception. The chypre family of perfumes has not been a major contributor to men’s perfume in the past ten years, falling out of fashion at the hands of “calone clones” (e.g Acqua di Gio, Cool Water L’Eau d’Issey…) that flooded the market in the late 90s. Tom Ford has assisted in a minor revival of the men’s chypre with his Private Blend collection. Guerlain’s revival of Derby is a great alternative to the hundreds of humdrum fougeres and modern woody eaux lining department store walls today.
Perfumer: Jean-Paul Guerlain
Bottle designer: Pochet et du Courval studio
Release date: 1985
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Dry Woods