This week marks the 8th year anniversary of my blog What Men Should Smell Like. What began as a New Year’s resolution to learn more about the world of men’s fragrances became more than I expected. I started out in 2011 reviewing the dozen or so fragrances I had collected. The first review I published was about Chanel Égoïste. It’s no coincidence I chose Égoïste to review first. Since its launch in 1990 it has been a constant favourite of mine and still pushes all the right buttons no matter how many times I smell it.
To celebrate the 8th year anniversary of What Men Should Smell Like, I’ve recut my original review of Égoïste, adding to it information I’ve learned since starting my blog. I also wanted to include Égoïste Cologne Concentrée, a rare version of Égoïste that collectors pay a small fortune for on the odd occasion a bottle goes up for auction on Ebay.
Chanel’s first release of Égoïste was in the mid-1980s in the form of Bois Noir. Karl Lagerfeld joined Chanel a couple of years earlier and a plan was developed to release a men’s collection with the launch of Chanel’s third men’s fragrance after Pour Monsieur and Antaeus. Chanel’s in-house perfumer Jacques Polge and his team developed a men's fragrance based on sandalwood, which was given the working title Bois Noir in his laboratory. Lagerfeld’s men’s line was cancelled and Chanel decided to cancel the fragrance as well. Polge believed in the fragrance and rallied for it to be launched. A compromise was reached and Bois Noir was launched only in Chanel’s flagship boutiques. There it generated buzz amongst the boutique’s exclusive clientele and Bois Noir was eventually granted a broader release in 1990. Chanel’s marketing team didn’t like the name and it was changed to L’Égoïste. Years ago I smelled Bois Noir and the difference between L’Égoïste is indistinguishable. Both are one and the same fragrance.
The advertising campaign for L’Égoïste was as audacious as the name of the fragrance. Graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude was approached to direct the television advertising. Goude created the iconic album artwork for singer Grace Jones and his concept for L’Égoïste’s advertising also turned heads. Meaning ‘selfish’ in French, Goude’s advertisement for L’Égoïste quoted 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille and finished with an entire building façade of window shutters being opened by women franticly chiming out “L’Égoïste” like cuckoo clocks. Goude later reflected back on the project. “I had no money at all. Everything that I had made had gone into those shows (for Grace Jones) so I was really happy when advertising came. Also in the 80s, in France, advertising was very popular. People loved advertising, even the art world. So I found myself doing my first little spot and not a star, but celebrated. It used to be a lot of fun. The client said no, do what you want. There was no imposition and no marketing strategies, which tend to paralyse a lot of creative people.”
Goude’s highbrow concept contributed to the fragrance’s cult status. Despite everything, L’Égoïste, which later became Égoïste, wasn’t a commercial success, especially in America, a key market for any international designer fragrance house. Even so, I clearly remember smelling L’Égoïste for the first time in the early 1990s and I immediately recognised it was unlike any fragrance for men at that time. I was in my mid-teens and was still very green. My fragrance vocabulary didn’t extend beyond Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Rochas and Aramis but Égoïste was love at first smell.
Égoïste was inspired by a women’s perfume, which may explain why it was so different compared to other men’s fragrances of its time. In the 1980’s, Polge had researched the formula of Bois des Iles (1926) in Chanel’s archives. This was one of a handful of perfumes created for Coco Chanel by perfumer Ernest Beaux who also created No. 5. The original Bois de Iles contained an overdose of sandalwood oil and Beaux’s signature warm ambery musk base. You can easily perceive the relationship between Bois des Iles and Égoïste when smelling the two side-by-side.
Jacques Polge said in an interview, “You know, the men's market is very particular. I know we went far with Égoïste, but I like it. It was good for Chanel.” To invest further in the Égoïste name after its commercial failure, Chanel launched Platinum Égoïste in 1994. Platinum was similar to Bleu de Chanel in the sense Chanel looked at everything that was currently popular in men’s fragrances and they created a great fragrance incorporating all the trends. Platinum was the commercial success Chanel had hoped for Égoïste but olfactory speaking; the two fragrances have nothing in common. It’s a rare case of a flanker fragrance overshadowing its parent.
Platinum wasn’t the first Égoïste flanker. In 1992 Chanel launched Égoïste Cologne Concentrée. I have never seen any official description of Égoïste Cologne Concentrée from Chanel but the Internet generally describes it as a more intense version of Égoïste. Cologne Concentrée wasn’t available for long so when a rare bottle goes up for auction on Ebay, the price is usually astronomical. But is it really worth the money? I’ve seen many blogs and vlogs gush over Cologne Concentrée but this is easy to do when you know most of your viewers will never have access to the fragrance to make their own comparison.
In the early 90's, it was uncommon for men’s fragrances to be presented in eau de parfum and parfum concentrations. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cologne Concentrée were a term Chanel devised to support sales in America where men were more receptive to the term cologne. Is Cologne Concentrée a different fragrance? Yes, when you compare it to Égoïste eau de toilette but the difference is minimal. At most it is simply a higher concentration of the Égoïste formula, maybe with some fine-tuning for finishing, instead of being an altogether new fragrance that introduces new notes not found in the original. In Cologne Concentrée, the heavy oriental notes of the base cover Égoïste’s top notes. Personally I prefer the eau de toilette because much of Égoïste’s originality exists in these top notes. The eau de toilette fully appreciates the experience of rosewood migrating through spiced roses towards a classic oriental base. One benefit Cologne Concentrée offers is a slightly more dominant sandalwood note.
I have been buying Égoïste since the 1990s and I still have bottles from all three decades, including Cologne Concentrée. You can tell the older bottles apart because the eau de toilette text on the bottle and box is printed above the Chanel Paris text. Newer bottles have the eau de toilette text printed below. Does Égoïste smell different today? Yes, somewhat. I’ll smell Égoïste testers in stores every now and again to see what's changed. I always recognise my old friend, despite the facelift I suspect is due to changes in the global supply of Indian sandalwood oil and updates to IFRA’s code of practice, which restrict and sometimes prohibit ingredients that are probably key to Polge’s original Bois Noir formula.
As is often the case with older fragrances, the official olfactory description has changed over time. Chanel currently describes Égoïste as “a unique woody-spicy-amber composition with a strong personality. Lively, fresh top notes of Mandarin and Coriander, subtly spiced, blend into the warm and enveloping notes of Damask Rose. The richness of Sandalwood is underlined by the extreme sensuality of Vanilla and Ambrette Seed for an Oriental trail.” Older descriptions describe the citrus note as tangerine instead of mandarin and Chanel have now omitted rosewood from the description, which for me, plays a critical role in the opening of the fragrance. There is also no mention of other spices like clove or cinnamon but I’d hazard a guess that Égoïste contains more than just coriander seed to convey its spiciness.
Not only is Égoïste a remarkable fragrance, it is a testimony to the talent of Jacques Polge and his deputy at the time, Francois Demachy, now in-house perfumer at Christian Dior. Égoïste is an olfactory maze, which bookends a spiced rose accord between woody top notes of rosewood and dried coriander seed and a base of precious sandalwood warmed with ambrette seed and vanilla. A very experienced French perfumer I met told me Égoïste was the first fragrance to use Osyrol in a big quantity. Perfumers have many sandalwood-related ingredients in their palettes; each has different olfactory facets and different impacts on a formula. Compared to other sandalwood ingredients like Javanol and Polysantol, which are diffusive in the top notes of fragrances, Osyrol is a quieter performer. Its character is more transparent and cleaner compared to Ebanol, which almost has an immortelle facet or Bacdanol, which plays up sandalwood’s creaminess. Osyrol also has a subtle rosy facet, which plays beautifully into Égoïste’s story of Damask rose and sandalwood.
A common question fragrance bloggers are asked is if we had to only wear one fragrance, what would it be? My response is Chanel Égoïste. I have a stockpile of bottles in the very real event that Chanel discontinues its production. Chanel already limits the sale of Égoïste to selected parts of the world. In Australia, Chanel only sells Platinum Égoïste. If you are an Australian reader and you have not smelled Égoïste; I recommend smelling it on your next trip overseas. It’s often easy to find in airport duty free shops outside Australia.