Perfume directions often go the way of fashion trends and lifestyle choices, which sometimes translates as going the way of the dodo, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the leather scents that emerged in the late 70s and during the 80s. After the brief optimism of the mid-60s, the world entered a grim period of oil crisis, economic downfall and the threat of the planet suffering nuclear annihilation. So what emerged from this situation? Consumerism, the cult of the ego, striving for quick wealth and excessive partying all rolled into one big cigar! Bret Easton Ellis wasn’t far off in his American Psycho: there was some degree of paranoia running through the course of that era and the leathery scents that graced it partook of it in some degree.
Many of those big, nasty bruisers that emerged owe a lot to the intense patchouli high of such scents as Aramis (1965). Composed by Bernand Chant who would follow with equally patchouli-laden Aromatics Elixir, Aramis, arguably the male version of same nose’s oeuvre Cabochard, made it OK to leave a bombastic luxurious sillage announcing itself in Wagnerian ouvertures that demanded their own Brunhilde following.
But it was Estée Lauder’s Azurée which was continuing the noble lineage of leathers in 1969. With its rather masculine edge despite its feminine gardenia aspirations, submerged into deceptive aldehydes or cyclamen and jasmine aromas, it opens on dark, musty oakmoss that grabs you and makes you pay attention. In a way though its leatheriness does not possess the striking green slap-across-the-cheek of Bandit or the smooth caress of a gloved hand that is Diorling; resulting in diminished revenue in today’s currency.
Caron’s Yatagan by nez Vincent Marcello came out in 1976 to a striking ad campaign brandishing a man with a giant curved Ottoman sword, the yatagan in question. On a par with Djedi in its uniqueness and otherworldiness it conjures up visions of fierce Tatars roaming through the steppes, stomping over jade artemisia and dark pine needles and keeping the meat for their meal under the saddle, imbuing it with the horse’s dense sweat. Its odour of livestock is peculiar, in an accord with liquor that has gone rancid. The culinary image of steak tartare with its weird vibe of sour, bitter and metallic is embossed in the fluxes of memory and never fails to raise its head when I am thinking about this arresting, avant-garde and trully brave scent which inspired and is still inspiring many niche perfumers, even today.
One of the first masculine scents I purposely tried to locate and wear was Jules by Christian Dior. It came out in 1980 and for years it kept a low profile saleswise, until suddenly it stopped being carried by my local store. It was at that minute that the quest for it became an impossibility and therefore (predictably) a semi-obsession: how could they do this to me? Discontinue it when I hadn’t even paid enough attention to it in its darkly aged-tobacco-ish flacon? It was de trop! I was determined to locate it! Of course decisions and determination often culminate in materialisation years later and such was the case with Jules. My encounter with it was sudden, brisk and like seeing a familiar face which I hadn’t thought of for a long time: Cuir de Russie amped up via a peppery accord like bell peppers getting cut in front of me.
Cartier made their own pilgrimage in 1981 through the cult of the watch: the leather wristbands of their Santos watches, inspired by aviator Santos Dumont, and on a second level the bomber jackets of the first days of aviation gave cue to Santos the fragrance. One of my personal favourites it is perhaps too butch, yet its mesmerising nutmeg and cumin spice pas de deux hidden in the effluvium of dark and dank patchouli and rich castoreum never fail to captivate me. Strange as it might sound, Santos has all too often served as a personal ambience scent for centering: How many happy hours have I stooped over historical documents and textbooks trying to think of this or that relation between cause and effect while the gentle remnants of Santos on little silk cushions were wafting their magic…
Santos was followed with many flankers, one of the most memorable ones being the Concentrée version which mollifies the spice duo and renders the greener aspect more intense.
But Santos was not alone: that same year Chanel gave Jacques Polge the brief to come up with a new masculine that would make waves and he succeeded with the intense sweaty macho maleness of Antaeus with its unusual honeycomb accord in the deep drydown and the strength of its mythological inspiration.
On the vein of the intense Van Cleef & Arpels homme, Trussardi Uomo (which came out in 1983) was for one brief moon the scent of choice of my father, its crocodile-print flask bottle garnering pride of place on the bathroom sill. Spice along with tobacco is prominent in this one as well, highlighting my predilection for such materials, with a passing touch of serene incense. But on re-smelling the fragrance for the purposes of this article I came upon a distinctly sour note that has a pin-and-needles effect up the nostrils which I didn’t recall in my father’s morning ritual. A little research quickly yielded its unsavoury results: there has been a reformulation which happened around 1995 when the bottles were redesigned. Too bad!
Guerlain is no stranger to leather and Derby, a masculine leather fougère, is one of the most elegant and debonair fragrances in the genre one could hope for. First issued in 1985 by nose Jean Paul Guerlain, it got re-issued for the removation of La Boutique Guerlain in 2005 to great and deserved critical acclaim. The leather notes rest atop the moss and minty herbs, with a very thick, spicy clove introduction. After some time a floral phase of carnation and jasmine peek under the clove and give a smooth richness that then goes into the forest floor of a traditional men’s fougère and the leather note of a battered jacket that has withstood the elements in a battle at some far away place.
The less controversial Bel Ami by Hermès was brought out in 1986 and it placed leather firmly in the map with all the determination of the purveyors of fine saddles since 1837. Leather was cool by then. It wasn’t the mark of the daring individual a la Yatagan, but a distinguished mark of sophistication all over again.
But the two most legendary ones are intended for women: Paco Rabanne’s long defunct La Nuit (1985) and Claude Montana’s Parfum de Peau (1986). The quintessential bruisers, both scents sport an unapologetic dash of panache which prowls across the room, across the corridor and probably over down the street as well.
As to La Nuit and its amazing drydown despite the unasuming opening, I am leaving you to enraptured Luca Turin on his take ~which probably caused a stampede to try and locate some of the elusive juice:
“This is the warmest, sultriest perfume imaginable. To think I hated it when it came out ! My extenuating circumstance was that at the time (1985) I lived in Nice, where women can be toe-curlingly vulgar, and it was a big hit. La Nuit is probably the most animalic perfume ever made by a major firm, and I don’t just mean musky à la Koublai Khan, or castoreum as in Tabac Blond, but something beyond that, almost urinous/sweaty, “wrong” and truly wonderful. Spray Tabu on a horse, and you’ll get the idea. I wrote a disparaging review of it in 1992, apologized for it in 1994 and only recently treated myself to a bottle. Now that the Niçoises have moved on, I see it for what it was all along: the sexiest fragrance since Cabochard”.
Parfum de Peau was my major introduction to castoreum, of which it features copious amounts, and thus merits its own full review shortly.