Lubin’s latest fragrance story is Upper Ten. The Parisian perfume house launched the new fragrance at the end of last year. This was recently followed by a feminine reinterpretation called Upper Ten for Her. At the start of the month I reviewed Upper Ten for Her on American website Cafleurebon but I kept this review of Upper Ten for my own blog as it’s one of my favourite fragrances of the year so far. Upper Ten is the story of America’s rise to power. The “upper ten” is an abbreviation coined by 19th century poet Nathaniel Parker Willis who referred to America’s elite as the “upper ten thousand.” They were high society people who led the country into a modern era and the First Industrial Revolution. They laid a foundation for the American Dream. Power, success and virility have always been tenets of modern men’s perfumery and Lubin’s Upper Ten indirectly touches on this precept. It’s not the first time Lubin has released a fragrance called Upper Ten although I doubt any living person will have first-hand experience of the premier, which launched in 1870. The name came from Lubin’s rich history but 21st century Upper Ten is an entirely new formula. Lubin’s current owner, Gilles Thevenin, worked with perfumer Thomas Fontaine to create Upper Ten, and he worked with perfumer Delphine Thierry to create Upper Ten for Her. I like this aspect of modern Lubin. The house’s history is always acknowledged and respected but the fragrances, even if the initial concept is lifted from the house’s centuries-old archives, always speaks to a contemporary audience. Thomas Fontaine has a special gift for remodeling old fragrance stories into modern feats; a skill he has demonstrated in his work for Lubin, Jean Patou and recently the revived house of Le Galion.
The past decade has been a time for resurrecting extinct brands that have historic significance. It’s a business practice that has always gone on but it amplified to become a trend shortly after the Global Financial Crisis. It started in fashion. The shaken economy made fashion houses feel insecure about the way they promoted short-lived seasonal fashion with apathetic advertisements that featured the glazed-over faces of celebrities and supermodels. After the GFC, fashion’s buzzwords became timelessness, quality, luxury, craftsmanship, and artisanal. Terms like ‘bag of a lifetime’ replaced ‘it-bag of the season.’ Around this time Louis Vuitton swapped its campaign model from supermodel Eva Herzigova to the leathery-faced Keith Richards. Suddenly storytelling became essential and authenticity separated the real luxury brands from the so-called pretenders. Longevity equalled brand power. One of the ways brands proved their authenticity was to write the founding year of the house on everything from the product to the paper shopping bag customers carried out of the stores and onto the streets. Savvy business owners who didn’t have an old brand went on an archaeological dig, found a deceased brand that had a marketable story, they bought the rights to the name and all of its IP, and then they coordinated a brand relaunch. Walking into one of these stores it’s as though the family business has been seamlessly handed down from generation to generation for centuries.
This trend in fashion quickly migrated to perfume where the values of craftsmanship, quality and artisanal skill neatly aligned with the values of an expanding niche perfume market. Oriza L. Legrand, Grossmith, Lubin, Le Galion, Robert Piguet, Parfums d’Orsay and Houbigant are some of the historic names that have been revived for 21st century audiences. The challenge these ‘old’ perfume houses now face is the changing trend. As the world becomes comfortable with the digital age, what was once science fiction is now everyday reality. Consumers are now starting to look forward instead of back. Vuitton no longer uses Keith Richards to advertise the brand’s ‘core values.’ One of its recent campaign models is Lightning, a digitally animated character from the video game Final Fantasy. Time will soon tell given the speed at which the perfume market is currently moving but I suspect some of these resurrected perfume houses will return to the dust from whence they came if they do not evolve quickly. Some are more cornered by time than others but Lubin is in an interesting position. The stories it has been telling through perfume are all historical; Upper Ten takes place in America in the mid-19th century and Upper Ten for Her is based in 1920s New York. Last year’s release for women, Grisette, was a story from France’s Belle Époque. Whether it’s intentional or not, Lubin’s packaging and the fragrances are more ambiguous in terms of placing them on a timeline. Although Lubin’s website proudly declares “Parfumeur depuis 1798,” I’m more excited to see what Lubin can do post-2016. If Upper Ten, Idole, Akkad and Korrigan is anything to go by, I think the house is in very good hands.
Upper Ten begins with the sweet aroma of cinnamon bubble gum. Juniper berries, pink peppercorns and bergamot make the opening lighter and fizzier. Cardamom adds aromatic freshness and spice. My favourite structure within the perfume is an overdose of cinnamon, which is scaffolded around an orange blossom accord. This bright indolic flower is further enhanced with geranium, saffron and peach, transforming what is essentially a spicy oriental fragrance that I have smelled many times before into something remarkable. The base is dominated by cedar wood, which is warmed with amber. Accords of sandalwood and white musk make the fragrance luminous and it shimmers. These two accords borrow from the peach note’s lactonic character to build an expansive sillage of milky woods and musk. It’s hard for the mind not to wander off to some exotic location in North Africa when smelling this combination of notes, particularly cedarwood and orange blossom together. The formula for Upper Ten could easily fit another story other than the one given. The notes of the fragrance have a narrative of their own, which to me, is more interesting than the Upper Ten story. I’m currently finding a number of perfume brands suffer from being too absorbed in their stories whilst offering very little in the way of olfactory substance. It’s nice to find an anomaly that sits on the right end of this bell curve.
Niche and luxury perfume is a growing industry, which is heavily contributed to by expanding markets outside Europe and America. The Middle East is of particular interest for a lot of Western brands and what sells in the Middle East has started to influence fragrance development in the West. New woody oriental perfumes tend to be pumped up with loud synthetic amber notes that fill a room and last for days. Rose notes are overtly opulent, often paired with saffron or jasmine. Leather notes, incense, and of course oud or agarwood notes are essential. Upper Ten cleverly straddles both worlds. I imagine it’s selling well in the Middle East but it also avoids a number of clichés mentioned above. It’s a wonderful autumn and winter fragrance. The amber and musk notes cling to the neck like a warm cashmere scarf and the sandalwood note produces a sillage that gently carries the cedar wood, spices and orange blossom.
Perfumer: Thomas Fontaine
Creative Director: Giles Thevenin
Release Date: 2015
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woody oriental