The list of classics is much shorter for men’s fragrances than it is for women’s. It’s more a numbers game instead of being a question of creativity. Every year new fragrance launches for women significantly outnumber those for men. Statistics aside, every decade there are a select few fragrances that define a generation of men. One of these definitive moments happened in 1965 when Guerlain launched Habit Rouge. In her book about Guerlain, author Colette Fellous writes: “It was an immediate success and there was a time when Habit Rouge was so popular in Paris, that it was virtually impossible to tell father from son.”
These magical moments in perfumery require a collision of factors to be produced and they are never predictable. If they could be predicted there would be far more of them. I wasn’t around in the 1960s to give a personal account of Habit Rouge but I remember 10 years ago when I smelled newly launched Terre d’Hermes. It was unlike anything I had smelled before but it made complete sense to me, as though it had always been part of my life. It was pure magic. I had a similar experience when I discovered Habit Rouge long after it was an established classic. It was phenomenal even though I could tell that it came from another time, a time that was not my own.
Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain, who is now retired, created Habit Rouge in his late 20s. Although the original cologne smells a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, when it was conceived, Habit Rouge held the dreams and aspirations of the young perfumer. Over the years Jean-Paul Guerlain revisited his creation; flankers and limited editions were launched then discontinued in succession. Each new version captured the fragrance in a different light and facets that were always present but perhaps a little hidden in the original were explored in more detail. New audiences and new innovations in raw materials also encouraged the perfumer to modernise his classic formula over time.
A new perfume for women might begin in its most concentrated form, l’extrait de parfum, and over time, lighter versions are offered. In the case of Habit Rouge, the fragrance began as an eau de cologne, gradually increasing in concentration from eau de toilette in 1988 to eau de parfum in 2003. Nearing Jean-Paul Guerlain’s retirement, Guerlain launched Habit Rouge l’Extrait in 2008. This would be the perfumer’s last rework of Habit Rouge before handing the company’s creative reins over to perfumer Thierry Wasser. Jean-Paul Guerlain’s extrait de parfum is his darkest interpretation of the equestrian-inspired scent, which Guerlain named after the bright red riding jackets worn by hunting masters.
Although Colette Fellous writes about the overwhelming success of the fragrance, blogger and Guerlainophile Monsieur Guerlain offers a different perspective from Guerlain’s Creative Director Silvaine Delacourte, who talks about the challenges Habit Rouge faced when it launched. Perfume marketing was still in its infancy and perfume houses relied on word of mouth. Success for a new perfume never came overnight. Jean-Paul Guerlain also received criticism from within his family for creating what they considered to be a women’s perfume for men. For l’Extrait, Jean-Paul Guerlain stripped away most of the offending notes. In comparison to the original Habit Rouge, which expands with an orb-like presence of citrus, rosewood and flowers, l’Extrait is far more compact. All citrus references are pushed to their bitter extremes and there is a curious absence of any major floral landmarks aside from an almost abstract rose geranium accord that feeds the fiery spices that run through the heart of the fragrance. Patchouli’s camphor note is enhanced creating synergies with the leather and orris notes. Compared to the flamboyant amber dry-down of the original, l’Extrait is a far more stoic affair. But pulling against these moody tones of dry woods and bitter leather is a more affable impression of vanilla, resins, chocolate and beeswax. L’Extrait is reminiscent of a dark and cavernous antiques store, where the scent of old wood restored by oils, waxes and polish permeates the air.
Finding a bottle of Habit Rouge l’Extrait can prove challenging unless you live in Paris. Even at Guerlain’s Champs Elysees address it may be a case of needing to ask for l’Extrait by name because the bottle is not always on display. Locating stock is the first hurdle and paying €300 for a 50ml bottle (2011 catalogue price) is potentially another hurdle for many. If you have cleared these two obstacles, congratulations, you are officially a member of the unofficial Habit Rouge fan club! I enjoy wearing l’Extrait as an evening fragrance. For me there is something very interesting about the scent of vanilla and amber in the absence of sun.
Perfumer: Jean-Paul Guerlain
Bottle Designer: Centdegrés
Release Date: 2008
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Classical oriental