Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Spy who Came In from the Cold ~Rive Gauche by Saint Laurent: fragrance review

“What KGB agents would have worn to seduce James Bond”* is not a bad description for any fragrance. But when it applies to an Yves Saint Laurent one you know it has the pedigree and the icy demeanor of Daniela Bianchi in From Russia with Love. Ian Flemming was no shrinking violet when it came to assigning fragrances to his literary heroines, starting with Vent Vert{1} and Guerlain’s Ode{2} and progressing to Chanel No.5{3} and Caron’s Muguet{4}. It would be intriguing to imagine Rive Gauche among the arsenal of his femmes exceptionelles!

Rive Gauche came out in 1971, aimed as the griffe of Laurent’s ready-to-wear line by the same name, meaning “left bank”. Left of the Seine of course, the place of abode for young bohemians and artists at the time. Created by Jacques Polge when his Chanel in-house position was perhaps but a distant dream (Henri Robert was composing the fragrances of Chanel at the time, specifically No.19) Rive Gauche was directly influenced by the ground-breaking Calandre (1969) by Paco Rabanne (which took its name from a car’s radiator grill in French breaking ties with romantic traditions). Like its predecessor it was a modern take on aldehydic fragrances. Contrary to the take-off note of aldehydes in Chanel No.22, where they shine with all the might of a soprano coloratura to extreme sweetness, in Rive Gauche, as well as in Calandre, the aldehydic hit upon spraying is snowy-cold, drier and with all the paradox of the Brave New World ahead: the two fragrances share a metallic rose of frosty petals that tingles the nose rendering that most romantic of blossoms into a hologram of a flower, underscored with the touch of green powder in the form of cool iris and vetiver, the enigma of the spy who came in from the cold.

Aimed at the young, Rive Gauche projected the audacious profile of a chic woman always dressed in electric blue like the silver-banded canister itself. One who flirts freely with a touch of bravado. Yet the fragrance now seems a little caught in the whirlwind of its era although its appeal never fades: it smells classy, not raunchy; mysteriously blue floral, yet non romantic English bone-china-pattern-style ~it’s flinty! And its amazingly salient characteristic is smelling fabulous on just about anyone: any difference of opinion is accountable down to perception and personal taste.

Rive Gauche for Women was savagely altered in a reformulation during the Tom Ford tenure as artistic director of Yves Saint Laurent, with some difference in packaging. A men’s version was introduced in 2003 (in my opinion redundant as the feminine could be worn by a man of confidence), a “formule Intense” which reportedly is closer to the original and thus worth testing if you have fond memories of the latter. The 2004 Rive Gauche Light for women is but a pale shadow of itself, while the non-alcoholic Rive Gauche Fraîcheur from 1995 is a hazy watercolor interpretation that I am sad to report is terribly fleeting.

Notes:Aldehydes, leaf note, galbanum, gardenia, narcissus, jasmine, rose, orris, honeysuckle, sandalwood, oakmoss, vetiver, tonka bean.

*Susan Irvine in "The Perfume Guide".
{1: in Live and Let Die, Goldfinger}
{2: in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service}
{3: in The Man with the Golden Gun}
{4: in Goldfinger}

Pic of Bjork by Jean Baptiste Mondino courtesy of Pic of Rive Gauche ad courtesy of parfumdepub.


  1. I am experimenting with it right now and find it not cool or metalllic at all (but this is the new version), refreshing maybe, at least in the top notes but the "hologram of a flower" as you called it so perfectly (as always!) leaves a warm and come-closer imprint on my skin that is hard to describe and still harder to be found. Irresistible.
    A true icon.

  2. Hi N! :-)
    I think the newer version while more approachable (more refreshing is a good description!) leaves out the weird "snowy"-powdery tinge of the 70s vintage opting for a more acceptable "modern" freshness: the drydown of both indeed has warmth, though, which accounts for it being seductive in such a classy way. I knew you'd like that.
    And it has such a lovely presentation too!

  3. Number one- that Bjork picture is fantastic !
    What a gal !

    Number 2- flinty.
    Perfectly put.

    I always liked RG, although I probably wore Y more often.

    It's so fascinating to review 'who was where'-creating at that period in time.
    My, how things have changed, no ?

    Great stuff !

  4. Thanks dear I!

    You know, I feel like Y is easier to track down a decent bottle of and so -lazily- I revert to it more as well...

    As to who was where, it's always the horizontal axis that presents the full scope of things in historical perspective, so I try to do that when -and if- I can. Thanks for noticing the effort :-)

    Times have certainly changed.

  5. I remember wearing this back in the 70s for a while. I've always loved the packaging - so sophisticated! As I (dimly) recall, the powderiness was what I liked the least; perhaps I would like the reformulation. At any rate, with all the YSL posts this week, I've been thinking of revisiting Rive Gauche, not to mention Paris. Thanks for the informative post, as always!

  6. Anonymous12:34

    (a non-perfume remark: yes, the picture of Björk is great! :) This inspired me to take a short break from work, and listen to her Gling-gló that I have stored on my mobile.
    I think perhaps this picture is alluding to the old Norwegean, and probably Islandic also, tale of king Valemon Kvitebjörn (white bear)?? A great tale children here learn as young)

  7. Thank you Anita for stopping by and for your kind words!

    I agree with you on the packaging: you expressed it very well ~sophisticated is the word. Everything about YSL was sophisticated.
    The new RG version is not as powdery so perhaps you might be in luck.
    We will visit Paris tomorrow :-)

  8. Dear S,

    I am sure it is as you say. The icelandic image, all in white, seems to bode well with an icy fragrance. And if there is a tale attached as well, well... all the better!

  9. By the way I love Bjork and I especially love the picture (I'm pretty sure it is inspired by the song Hunter she does, well worth finding the video because it shows her morphing into a polar bear). I admit I have only smelled the reformulation of Rive Gauche and I wasn't to happy with it; why must they screw with a good scent?!

  10. Jen,

    yes, that's the one!

    Re: you rhetorical question ~I don't know either...I guess it's a combination of needing to cheapen the formula, eliminating allergens and conforming to the general trend/taste of the times.
    All of them sounding terribly cynical to what is essentialy a work of wearable art.

  11. Anonymous18:22

    (Of course the picture must be inspired by the song Hunter! But her morphing into a polar bear I will guess must be inspired by old tales of humans morphing into polar bears. A strong picture! the polar bear being the largest and most dangerous of bears living in the serenity of the furthest north, carrying a pletora of strong images..

  12. S,

    Interesting what you say about humans morphing into polar bears. There is much zoomorphic tradition in the south as well (in Greek and Eastern/Anatolian mythology), but of course the polar bear is very impressive indeed, much more than other animals: the contrast with the serenity of the landscape is also striking.

    {btw, bears are quite unpredictable in general: I think it was the Native Americans/Indians who used to say "I am not afraid of anything, except for thunder and bear"}.

  13. Rive Gauche was my first grown-up fragrance. The ad attracted me first -- it was the one with a redhead flirting with a man in a café, clearly taking the initiative. I don't remember what I thought about the fragrance back then, however... But it was a leap away from Max Factor Green Apple, that's for sure. I think in many ways the original Rive Gauche embodies the sexy, seductive, empowered and playful woman Yves Saint Laurent designed for in the 6s and early 70s, much more than the decadent, hedonistic Opium.

  14. Dear D,

    a departure indeed!
    Isn't it fascinating how images -and advertising ones at that- have such an impact on us, sometimes? It can take a negative turn, but it can also take a positive one, like what happened to you with RG. I agree the ads were very fetching: emancipated woman, not shy and much more playful than the Opium addicts.
    I believe it had something to do with his own progression into addiction and retreat to Marrakech.

  15. Alexandra17:47

    Can you please explain me the difference in packaging between old and new version. I am searching for an old formula, but I can`t tell the difference when I see the photo. I used it 20 years ago and adored it. I have impression that bottle (can) looked the same as today. Some people sell glass bottles (I never saw a glass bottle, only can) with 2 thin yellow lines between blue and black. Is that old one?

  16. Alexandra19:50

    Yup, I can see the difference. On the old one *RG* is up there and *YSL*name is on lower part of the bottle. I was totally convinced that old and new bottle are identical.

  17. Hi Alex!

    Late in replying, sorry...

    Yup, as you say there is a difference in placement of the name of the designer and the name of the fragrance on the can.

    There is also as you found out a difference in sizes presented: The original vintage Rive Gauche came in 75ml bottles as depicted above, new Rive Gauche only as 50ml/1.7oz and 100ml/3.4oz bottles. I believe that must be indeed the case and thanks for bringing it here.

  18. Forgot to add:

    I don't recall any yellow stripes/lines on the RG bottles. Sure it's not a flanker/limited edition/spin on it? I recall the alcohol-free summer edition (issued mid-90s) was in frosted glass instead of metal, but otherwise identical.

  19. Alexandra15:08

    Here you can see a photo of that strange bottle with yellow stripes, older formula. And bottle is made of glass

  20. A,

    it looks very weird! Something is wrong. Could it be a fake or a "touched" photo? The box too should be corresponding, one would guess. But it seems it doesn't.

  21. Prince as a "man of confidence" loved female a behind-the-scenes concert vid from 1990 this perfume can be glimpsed on his dressing table...what a legendary guy on so many levels <3

  22. Anonymous15:53

    Could someone please tell me what the ORIGINAL, 1971 formula for Rive Gauche ingredients were, please? I don't care a toss about no reformulation! Which essences composed this formula back in the 1970s? It was the most heavenly and the scent of women in Paris.


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