There are plenty of Guerlain fragrances that have been overshadowed by the monumental success of the house’s icons such as Mitsouko and Shalimar. Jacques Guerlain created Sous le Vent in 1934. It is one of many masterpieces Guerlain created, which often get overlooked. Sous le Vent’s recent exposure was never helped by the fact Guerlain only sold the fragrance in a small selection of its boutiques. At €225 a bottle (Guerlain’s 2011 product catalogue), Sous le Vent became a connoisseurs’ fragrance when it was resurrected by Jean-Paul Guerlain in 2006. The fragrance was retired a couple of years ago, adding Sous le Vent to the long list of Guerlain classics that are now almost impossible to purchase.
Once you begin delving into the history of fragrances it won’t be long before you come across the term chypre. This fragrance jargon dates back to the early 20th century – mid 19th if you really do your research. Named after the island of Cyprus (chypre is Cyprus in French), a typical chypre fragrance is built around citrus notes, labdanum, woody notes and oak moss. Guerlain launched Eau de Chypre in the 1850s, Chyprisine in 1894 and Chypre de Paris in 1909. Fragrance historian Michael Edwards says, “The scent of these old formulae, however, were a heavy blend of oakmoss and citrus. Coty was the first to compose a lighter, more wearable chypre.” Francois Coty etched a line in history in 1917 and he set the benchmark for the genre. His Chypre de Coty became the archetype for most chypre fragrances that followed.
Mitsouko followed Chypre de Coty. Just as Aimé Guerlain progressed Houbigant’s fougere accord with Jicky in 1889, Jacques Guerlain progressed Coty’s chypre by adding a soft, lactonic peach note with a molecule called aldehyde C14. The perfumer wrapped this novel ingredient around Mitsouko’s floral bouquet similar to the way Ernest Beaux famously used aldehydes C10, C11 and C12 to enhance the floral notes of Chanel No 5 a few years later.
After Mitsouko, Jacques Guerlain continued to explore the chypre genre. He followed Vol de Nuit (1933), another Guerlain icon, with Sous le Vent, a fragrance he created for Paris celebrity Josephine Baker. Guerlain says, “She loved perfumes, but for “Sous le Vent” she felt a genuine passion. After every show she would envelop herself in its scent, like a shawl slipping softly over her shoulders.” Guerlain cites the Leeward Isles in the West Indies as Jacques Guerlain’s inspiration for the scent. Fragrance chemistry has come leaps and bounds since the 1930s and today’s perfumers have access to thousands more ingredients with which they can express their ideas. A Caribbean-inspired scent of today would smell like anything but Sous le Vent, perhaps incorporating ozone and marine notes, or notes of exotic tropical fruit, rum and sugar cane. Sous le Vent has a naive charm owing to the period in which it was created, a time without Internet and a time when travel was not as convenient as it is today. For me the fragrance speaks more to life in Paris during the 1930s and the remnants of Romanticism that prevailed in perfumery at the time.
Sous le Vent opens with refreshing citrus notes cooled by green galbanum. Aromatic notes of tarragon, basil and myrtle increase the fragrance’s greenness; it is an aspect that sets Sous le Vent apart from other Guerlain chypres. I picture a quaint seaside herb garden overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The floral bouquet is jasmine, carnation, ylang ylang and tiaré flower. These narcotic floral notes contain a little bit of Mitsouko’s fruitiness – perhaps a side effect of the white floral notes. Sous le Vent is much more austere, and dare I say masculine, compared to other Guerlain chypres. During a talk Michael Edwards gave a couple of years ago, he referred to Chanel Pour Monsieur as the closest existing relative of Coty’s extinct Chypre de Coty. Sous le Vent has much in common with Chanel’s classic men’s fragrance. The dry down frames dried tobacco leaves with mossy woods and a hint of warm resins. The house’s signature Guerlinade accord plays out in the background making it a fragrance that is unmistakably Guerlain. Like other classics, Diorella, Givenchy III and numerous early to mid 20th century Guerlain fragrances, the beauty of chypre perfumes is the journey that begins with brilliant freshness and sparkling citrus notes at the front of the fragrance that then swan dive into something dark, mysterious and by modern standards a little bit dirty and feral. When I want an alternative to Mitsouko, I reach for my bottle of Sous le Vent or Derby.
Perfumer: Jacques Guerlain
Release Date: 1934 (relaunched 2006)
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Mossy woods
Notes: Bergamot, lavender, tarragon, carnation, jasmine, green notes, orris, woods, oak moss