Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Who's the Chypriest of Them All? ~Y by Saint Laurent: fragrance review

I can recall down to the minute when I became entangled into Yves Saint Laurent’s vision. It was even before I saw his amazing couture on Betty Catroux and Talitha Getty in the photos of the glossy magazines that my mother used to buy and cut out clippings of when she deemed beautiful; and before I leafed through my father’s art-books with the colorful, geometrical Mondrian and trapezoid Braque paintings.

Specifically the trigger had been an olfactory one: stepping into a taxi out of which a woman wearing Opium had just left. My puerile ears had the good fortune of catching the driver’s phrase “My God, this Opium scent is everywhere and it’s so strong!” My mother nodded her beautiful head in silent demi-assent as she always did when she was too polite to disagree or further an argument. Myself I was not yet capable of discerning nuances of speech so as to differentiate a positive from a negative one. I only seem to recall that that was the most exquisite scent I had ever smelled, I was straining to absorb every single molecule I could attach to my nostrils’ Velcro and I was already seriously longing for it as soon as I stepped out of that taxi. I can’t really recall where we were going, whether our purpose was a practical or social one or what we were wearing or how the driver looked like. My memory obliterated all those things, choosing to cherish only the precious memento of first smelling Opium off the sillage of a complete stranger. Such is the power of fragrance!
It haunted me for years and as soon as I had pocket money or could request gifts of beauty I knew what my little heart desired: the forbidden elixir encased in the cinnabar bottle with the black tassel. Other perfumes came and went and I amassed whatever I could lay my hands on, but Yves Saint Laurent became my first fashion icon through Opium.

Blossoming into a woman I personally discovered other creations of his, which brightened my life with their beauty and style. One of them was Y, his first fragrance for women. Named after his initial, I imagine it also allied to the French pronoun for “there”, since it is definitely very much there: it imposed its presence with elegance and the endurance of a true classic.
Y was issued in 1964 (2 years after Yves's first YSL collection) and was composed by nose Jean Amic in a beautiful, solid, architectural bottle designed by Pierre Dinard.

Exactly two years before Yves was rocking the catwalks with the Norman Smock, a garment debuting more than 1,000 years ago but serving as an inspiration for YSL peasant-looking shirts, Russian tunics, Chinese coats, boho artist's jacket, or even the jacket of a gabardine pantsuit over the years: Yves was already doing what he considered style ~the reference that provides a solidarity to one’s wardrobe away from the dictations of currency. Clothes should be made to last and speak through the years.
Much like his fluid fashions of 1964, with languorous gowns, gracious pantsuits and flowing tunics that draped curves rather than suppressed them, Y the fragrance became the emblem of la maison Laurent: flamboyant if you look at the prism from an angle that the sun catches it producing a vivid rainbow on the wall, restrained if you look at it from an angle where it shines with the natural incandescence of clear crystal.

In many ways Y was a departure from the prim and tasteful aldehydic fragrances of the times such as Le Dix or Madame Rochas, proposing a greener, more subversive, emancipated chypre that would herald the onset of the powerful chypres of the 70s. And yet it did so with elegance, without the shock value of Bandit or the intensity of Aromatics Elixir, yet without betraying the bedrock of the genre’s character. “Which is the chypriest of them all?” And possibly the chirpiest…
Y took the powdery aldehydic notes of previous beauties and gave them a retouch of bluish grey dense brushstrokes of shadow-y depth that mollify the sparkling honeysuckle and the heady hyacinth heart into something that approximates Marc Franz paintings: the striking and angular happily coexist with the curvaceous. Above all, Y highlights oakmoss in perhaps the last composition –up to the time of writing- to retain some semblance of fidelity to the rotting frisée of the parasitic lichen that laces itself upon the mighty oak. Its animalic but classy echo is heard through the urban forests to the pursuit of discerning suitors.
If you have loved Ma Griffe for its spicy emerald song, Chanel No.19 for its audacious herbal iris, the vintage Miss Dior for its naughty seduction under wraps and 31 Rue Cambon as a bastard descendant of the greats who pays a visit when the need strikes and you haven’t tested Y by Yves Saint Laurent yet, serious amiss should be amended before it is utterly ruined.

Top: aldehydes, peach, gardenia, mirabelle and honey suckle.
Middle: Bulgarian rose, jasmine, tuberose, ylang ylang, orris and hyacinth.
Base: oak moss, amber, patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver, civet, benzoin and styrax.

Y by Yves Saint Laurent is easily available at department stores and online.

Update on reformulation: the newest Eau de toilette bottles have a gold cap and the Y straight up and down versus a white cap and an italicised Y for the older ones. The name on the bottom of the bottle is Sanofi Beaute for the older ones, the group that YSL Parfums joined in 1993. Sanofi Beaute however was acquired by Gucci Group in 1999 and Yves Saint Laurent has been recently acquired by L'oreal, heralding further tampering with the formula.

Pics provided by "Armanis", posted in fond admiration


  1. It's interesting that you should see this as the first chypre to open up the genre to a more modern taste: I see it as the last straight-faced couture chypre. I guess it comes to the same. Y is to me the very essence of chypre-ness as well, its purest expression...

  2. When Opium came out, Estée Lauder apparently commented, 'It's Youth Dew with a tassel.' LOL!

    I used to wear chypres (they're still my favourite perfume family), but don't any longer, for reasons that I can't quite fathom myself.

  3. How could I have missed Y, need to do something about it!

  4. Chypres are hard for me to wear, understatement, the most luck I have had with them is in the category of fruity chypre, otherwise Helg enjoy your Y and wear it with pride.

  5. Dear D,

    it makes for a landmark, doesn't it? ;-) It's very green, yet very urban: a contradiction that doesn't go unnoticed.
    I knew you'd be a fan!

  6. Dear J,

    apparently Lauder was beat to her own version of a spicy oriental, Cinnabar which came out at around the same time (and is quite close, really), but was never as successful: there are some tales that she had been working on it with IFF for some time, only to see her competitor then come out with Opium and eclipse all antagonism.

    Funny you should stop wearing chypres: what brought about such a change, have you wondered?
    I know myself I had at some point become too immersed in orientals and developed a certain ennui...it passed, fortunately.
    Your current choices from what I know are incredible, so...

  7. Dear L,

    yes, you certainly should!

  8. Dear Jen,

    well, yes, Y is not a fruity chypre by any means. I think you would like Yvresse though (in moderation, it's very strong!), which is just as well.

  9. I think Y was ruined for me by someone wearing it with too heavy a hand. In moderation, it would have been beautiful.

    If I could find some around here, I'd give it a go again. I love Ma Griffe.

  10. Anonymous16:39

    Great article! I'm a big fan of Y, as well, and today is a perfect day for it.

  11. Oh, that's terrible when it happens Karin! Sorry about that...
    I would be interested in hearing your opinion when you retest it!

  12. You flatter me dear Angela, thank you for your kind words.
    I should have known we form an appreciation club of this lovely fragrance! It feels good to be among friends who share the passion :-)

  13. Crap, I want to try this one now, along with O de Lancome and Opium (which I sniffed lightly, but couldn't really smell because I have a cold, but I really liked it).

  14. All right, Dain, since you are in a tight spot right now due to illness), send me a mail with a mailing address and I will be overjoyed to send you samples of all three to try them out when you feel better! (hopefully very soon)


  15. Helg, as you know i love Y, it's one of the few "sharp" chypres i can easily wear (i wonder what exactly makes the difference, i cannot do Bandit, Ma Griffe or Knowing at all). It just makes me feel so good. The relation to Franz Marc makes perfect sense to me!! Remember "Le tigre"? Exactly what it means!

  16. Dear N,

    I don't see any gap in your collection if you love Y, honestly. There is no reason to opt for any of the others mentioned, having Y and Miss Dior as trusted allies!

    Glad you "got" the artistic reference as I intended it to be. Sometimes these are such subjective matters I feel I am alone in a specific tie and think others would pick something else in the vast subject of art to compare to.

  17. Pix from Armanis !
    I hope he's well, that dear man !

    I wish I could get my hands on the parfum; I love the EDT, the lovely Dinand bottle [ functional, classic, but NOT ordinary!].

    [Sadly, the re-mastered Miss Dior doesn't wear well, for me]

  18. Old pics, alas. I share your wishes.

    I was a bit let down by the remastered Miss Dior as well. Well, Dioressence was horrid last time I checked so I was more lenient with that one.

  19. Hey it's Lia! I got a mini Y parfum in a set from 1983, mostly for the Rive Gauche and Opium parfum originals, it was for the release of Paris which I had enough in high school. Anyway I put Y and Paris on EBay and they didn't sell. And I'm glad. I tried Y today and love it more than Mitsouko.

  20. Hi it's Lia. I got a 1983 box of parfum minis for the launch of Paris. I only wanted the Opium and Rive Gauche and put Y and Paris on EBay. They didn't sell so I kept them even though I had enough of Paris in high school. I'm glad because this is right up there with Mitsouko!


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