It is now the standard for high-end fashion brands to design an exclusive line of fragrances, which is defined by uniformed packaging, limited distribution, a higher price point and niche formulas. In 2007 when Tom Ford launched his Private Blend Collection, the American designer was one of the first, along with Chanel, Prada and Hermes, to launch an entire collection on one date. It was one in a series of events that cemented his bold return to the world fashion after announcing retirement only a few years before. I remember the first time I smelled the collection. For me it was as though Tom Ford, under the expert guidance of Estee Lauder, had reinterpreted history’s greatest perfumes. The collection showcased new examples of all the perfume archetypes from chypre to oriental. Neroli Portofino was Ford’s reinterpretation of Eau de Cologne, a classic fragrance conceived during the Early Modern Age. The agreeable aroma of citrus oils, aromatic herbs and citrus flowers was thought to be an effective cure against diseases caused by miasma or bad air. Eau de Cologne remained fashionable even after its medicinal benefits were discredited. Its refreshing odour was a symbol of good morals and birth. This symbolism continues today, particularly in the West, under the guise of cleanliness.
In subsequent years, Neroli Portofino was singled out. It was the first Private Blend fragrance to break Ford’s amber glass mould. He gave it a dedicated advertising campaign, cast the bottle in marine blue glass and added body products. This year Neroli Portofino’s creator, Givaudan’s Vice President of Perfumery, Rodrigo Flores-Roux has created two new interpretations of Neroli Portofino, one fresher version and one more intense version, called Neroli Portofino Acqua and Neroli Portofino Forte. Eau de Cologne is a difficult genre to reinterpret because its definition is extremely narrow compared to more elastic genres that allow for new raw materials or notes to be added. Stray just a fraction from the template and it’s no longer eau de cologne; it becomes something else. With such a strict design brief, I was curious to see how these two new variations compared to the original Neroli Portofino, which is one of my favourite fragrances.
There are literally hundreds of eau de colognes from Chanel’s equally luxurious Eau de Cologne, to Guerlain’s historic Eau de Cologne Imperiale to low-cost 4711 Cologne. With no shortage of comparisons the question sometimes raised is, “why buy Neroli Portofino when 4711 is a fraction of the cost?” It’s true; Neroli Portofino has similar olfactory schematics to 4711. All eau de colognes do. While low-cost eau de cologne is made from synthetic molecules and raw materials that are abundant and cost-effective, Neroli Portofino includes some highly refined natural essences and extracts in its formula, which provide subtle levels of detail and complexity as well as some synthetic molecules, particularly certain musks that are expensive to produce and therefore restricted from being used in high concentrations in low-budget formulas. Comparing Neroli Portofino to a low-cost eau de cologne is like comparing a Lamborghini Huracán to a Honda Civic Coupe because they both have two doors and are made in red. I’m not interested in cars and the Honda would suit me fine. Similarly, a lot of people won’t want to shop at the top of the range to have a cologne that serves their need for a refreshing citrus scent. For those that do, Tom Ford has responded with Neroli Portofino, now available in a lighter version and Forte, an even more luxurious (i.e. costly) version.
Having interviewed Rodrigo Flores-Roux on numerous occasions and being a big fan of his work, I know he enjoys creating opulent fragrances and he has an affinity for all things Baroque. Something I admire about Neroli Portofino’s structure is the way Rodrigo transformed the classic eau de cologne into an opulent fragrance, which he grafted onto a powerful musky base. Because he is anosmic to a number of musk molecules, as many people are, Neroli Portofino needed to contain a musk accord that he could smell. The result is a feathery cloud of musk that envelopes its wearer. Neroli Portofino’s raw materials are also sublime. The passage from the top notes to the heart of the fragrance contains an array of floral notes from fine neroli oil to jasmine absolute from Egypt and Eau de Brout; a special extract made from the water bi-product of distilled bitter orange flowers. Finally the musk accord takes over and fixes all floral remnants to the skin as the fragrance winds down.
Neroli Portofino Acqua begins with Sicilian lemon, bergamot and a hint of mandarin. The start is not dissimilar to the original. Then the invigorating scent of neroli oil washes over the wearer. The freshness of these notes is offered freedom to dominate the fragrance whereas in the original, the latter half of the fragrance is quick to consume this invigorating start. Acqua is a clean, refreshing experience. The heady floral notes and musk have been pulled back somewhat to allow for an even more classic eau de cologne experience, which is crisp, refreshing but fleeting.
While Acqua is only a micro shift away from its parent, Neroli Portofino Forte puts more distance between itself and the original. New notes take the story in a different direction. Forte begins with notes of lemon, bergamot and mandarin. Blood orange is a new addition as is the cool green shade of galbanum resin that is backed with a touch of spearmint and aromatic notes. For me Forte’s star is the green basil note, which adds a novel spicy freshness to the top of the fragrance and it also pairs nicely with the angelica musk and suede notes that are blurred out in the background. Forte’s neroli is more opulent compared to Acqua. Indolic orange flower absolute bathes the fragrance in rich golden light. Compared to the original, Forte’s floral core has been doubled in concentration, which allows the wearer to further appreciate the beauty of the orange flower. Instead of feather-like musk, Forte’s base is built around Muscone, an expensive musk molecule described as having a warm animal tonality, reminiscent of natural Tonkin musk. This more animalic finish is paired with angelica, suede, sandalwood and oakmoss. Forte takes the angelic softness of Neroli Portofino and scruffs it up a bit with a more animalic, bitter edge.
Neroli Portofino Acqua is not a significant departure from the original. Acqua might attract people wanting a marginally fresher version of the original, less affected by the wave of musk that follows at the end. I suspect it won’t appease all of the complainers that want Neroli Portofino to last longer on skin and perhaps most perfume collectors will not see a need to own both the original and Acqua because they are very similar. For me it’s a case of owning either or. Forte on the other hand is different and I’m enjoying the alternative this new interpretation provides. Although I have been wearing both of them during our current cool seasons, they still evoke the feeling of summer, the outdoors and sun drenched holidays. Because of their subtlety, Acqua and Forte are also perfect office fragrances.
Further recommendations: Tom Ford – Neroli Portofino, Chanel – Eau de Cologne, Frederic Malle – Cologne Indelebile, Frederic Malle – Cologne Bigarade, Maurer & Wirtz – 4711, Guerlain – Eau de Cologne Imperiale
Perfumer: Rodrigo Flores-Roux
Creative Director: Karyn Khoury, Tom Ford
Release Date: 2016
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Forte – Dry Woods