Monday, November 22, 2010

Penhaligon's Sartorial: fragrance review & draw

Penhaligon’s latest fragrance, Sartorial, is tailored; literally. It reminds me a bit of the Humphrey character in 1980s BBC Yes Minister! satirical series: of a certain age and social placement, immaculate, a bit stuffy suits thanks to the job requirements, yet there is a glint in the eye, no doubt about it. You can't deny there is rhyme to its reason and intrigue to its plot, but is the scent as inspired as it's suggested in the press material?

Still for all its smell-good factor within the tired (by now) aromatic fougère* genre Sartorial by Penhaligon's presents something of a dichotomy: On one hand, it reminds me of my elegant grandpa (he uncharacteristically wore chest-thumbing Givenchy Gentleman and carried an inexpensive white bottle of Tabac with him on beach vacations, of all things), so young blokes might get scared off ~or repelled, it depends on their lineage memories.
On the other hand, it's got something of the ape-to-gentleman British touch which Penhaligon's obviously meant to catch for overseas audiences, so chalk it up to a success at the drawing table, pun intended. What's left to wonder is whether high-end shoppers will immediately realise that it is so reminiscent of older classics of the 70s that have trickled down to the point of "old man scent" (Please refer to our The Perfume Wars Old Lady vs.Older Woman Perfume article to fully realise the implications of such a moniker)

Created by perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour at the nudge of Emily Maben, Penhaligon's marketing director, it was inspired by the scents of the workroom at Norton & Sons, bespoke tailors at No. 16 Savile Row who dressed everyone from insulars Winston Churchill and Cary Grant to "imported Beau Brummels" Fred Astaire and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Now, the tailor's doesn't really smell of much, you might argue, perhaps a bit of that indeterminate wooliness and dry chalk that is par for the course where flannels and fine cashmeres are cut to produce those bespoke suits we admire. And you would be right! So, we're dealing with a transposition of Englishness into a brand which is characteristically British to a fault to begin with; it's a bit like putting a huge beret on the Eiffel Tower or an extra pinch of sugar to a square of Turkish baklava!

According to Penhaligon's:

"Sartorial is a contemporary interpretation of a classic Fougère; the traditional notes of oakmoss, tonka bean and lavender have been exquisitely stitched together with woods, ozonic and metallic effects, leather, violet leaf, honey and spices to create the perfect illusion of a tailor’s workroom. The modern thread running through Sartorial is beeswax; echoing the blocks of wax each thread is run across before stitching. This sweet smudged note ties together the more traditional elements; the oiled flash of shears cutting cloth, the rub of fabric beneath fingers, tobacco tinted cabinetry, puffs of chalk in the air and old paper patterns vanilla with age".
Nice story, but what is original in Sartorial is first and foremost structure: One of contrasting duality between tradition and deconstruction (is it old or is it new again?), and one which reinterprets programmatic elements into an abstract impression, much like the fougère itself. Lavender, oakmoss, patchouli and often geranium with coumarin as the sweeter note act as the skeleton of the fougère, the most archetypally "virile" genre, but also one which doesn't evoke a natural smell but rather the Victorian salons where men were allowed to scent their handkerchiefs with "clean" colognes and waft them in the air. That's so Penhaligon's I could tear up a bit. The dichotomy is so clear as if Terence Stamp is weilding his sabre in Far from the Madding Crowd and then shoots a baddie in The Limey.

The arresting top note in Penhaligon's Sartorial is nicely misleading, seemingly giving the impression of a masculine cologne citric blast (thanks to traditional distillate neroli, often featured in men's colognes as a mid-hesperide, mid-floral top note). But it's actually a careful, intelligent nugget which belies any classification: It combines the sharp notes of ozone with the soapy-clean-after-shave effect of aldehydes, sprinkled with the metallic-watery note of violet leaf (very cliché, as it's featured in so many unisex and masculine contemporary scents, so obviously Bertrand is toying with us). Despite the mention of spices, the effect is not pronounced (a bit of pepper is all I sense). Sartorial is not a spicy fragrance and none of the spices make themselves known per se; the wonderful leather, lavender and patchouli-coumarinic facets rise soon after the top notes dissipate and persist for long: The caramelised end of the spectrum of lavender is supremely coupled to the naturally occuring dark cocoa note of natural patchouli absolute. It just smells good!
The earthiness of patchouli is a given for Duchaufour who has proclaimed the earth's smell as an eternal inspiration (and who uses the Racine base** to infiltrate his compositions with it very often, a note between aged vetiver and polished woods): The effect is not exactly "dirty" though (as in dirt), as it is closer to yummy, honeyed and lightly incense-like (more myrrh than frankincense) and somewhat musky: think of Luten's mysterious and intense Borneo 1834 with its roasted notes and Ayala Moriel's Film Noir than Chanel's fluffier chocolate meringue Coromandel.

Penhaligon's Sartorial weaves its strange spell by its poise and cocksure attitude at the tailor's fitting: Not only does it not proclaim whether it's a "leftie" or "rightie" (is this too much information for a Brit?), it's snuggly enough to be filched by a woman as an androgyne backdrop for when she ventures out to turn the tables; only if she's supremely feminine however!

One carded sample is available for a lucky reader. State what you think if you tried it in the comments; or, if you haven't, whether you like its concept or not and why.

Notes for Penhaligon's Sartorial:
HEAD NOTES: Aldehydes, Ozonic Effect, Metallic Effect, Violet Leaf, Neroli, Cardamom, Black Pepper, Fresh Ginger
HEART NOTES: Beeswax, Cyclamen, Linden Blossom, Lavender, Leather
BASE NOTES: Gurgum Wood, Patchouli, Myrrh, Cedarwood, Tonka Bean, Oakmoss, White Musk, Honey Effect, Old Wood Effect, Vanilla, Amber

Artist Quentin Jones was commissioned by Penhaligon’s to create a stop-motion animation exploring the story behind the new gentlemen’s fragrance Sartorial. Filmed at the Norton & Sons shop on Savile Row, the animation features the fragrance’s creator Bertrand Duchaufour. Patrick Grant, the owner of Norton & Sons, also makes a cameo appearance. The opening scenes depict perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour at Norton & Sons, absorbing the scents and smells of the workrooms. Bertrand is seen smelling the fragrant scents exuded from the rolls of fabric, machinery and paper patterns before he is able to embark on the creative journey to craft a contemporary fragrance or cologne inspired by the scents and smells of the famous Savile Row workrooms.

*Aromatic fougère is a subcategory of the "fougère" family of scents: Essentially, an accord of lavender-oakmoss-coumarin (from tonka beans) creates the classic fougère (examples of which are the historical Fougere Royale by Houbigant which started the "family" and the 70-80s classics Azzaro Pour Homme, Paco Rabanne pour Homme, Drakkar Noir) and touches of aromatic plants (usually herbs) are added.
**Corps Racine by Symrise or 2-(3-phenylpropyl) Pyridine according to H&R

In the interests of full disclosure, the company sent me samples in the mail to try it out.


  1. I'd love to try this. The concept is intriguing though I really have no idea what a tailor's workroom smells like ...

  2. I would like to try this as well; I was recently in a tailor's shop (in China...) smelling the chalk, beeswax and wool; trying to envision what Sartorial smells like...

  3. Linda23:44

    Very very interesting! Thank you for this excellent review - I am so impressed with Bernard Duchaufour (loved Amaranthine).
    Please don't enter me into the draw: I am very spoilt already,
    Best wishes...

  4. I'd like to try this, but the concept seems a bit contrived. I guess I'm rarely captured by the concepts put out by perfume marketing departments...

  5. Elisa,

    thanks for stopping by and good luck!

    Like I said, a tailor's doesn't smell of anything much. This is a marketing idea mostly: to evoke something very British, very classy. Lots of other places are more fragrant. ;-)
    It's a nice touch however that the patchouli recalls the practice of colonial Brits of wrapping Indian shawls and saris with patchouli to travel across Europe so as to protect the cloths from moths.

  6. Brian,

    wool is one of those smells which I really love and can't say that has been captured efficiently yet.
    This fragrance is very nice-smelling, especially if you like the classic 70s fougeres. As to how it re-interprets the ambience of a tailor's shop, I'd say it deconstructs the elements into a Duchaufourian creation :-)
    It's sample-worthy to be sure.

  7. Linda,

    thanks for the most kind words and for your comment.
    I feel that Amaranthine is Bertrand's best work for Penhaligon's yet, although not everyone is prepared to embrace its carnality I understand. His work is certainly very interesting to watch.

  8. Matt,

    not blaming you!
    Like I said above, there are some clever touches (the patchouli does remind one of Victorian Brit tailors and what's more Victorian British than Saville Row?), but the overall concept is a bit "touristy", I'm sorry to say. If it were geared for the vast American market, I wouldn't be surprised (A market which bears a kinship with Britain and is also most admiring of the old tailoring tradition.) If Luca Turin was around reviewing these he would designate it to the "monogrammed slippers" category as a concept (the scent smells more voyou than that, though)

    You're in, just in case. The juice is good enough to try it out.:-)

  9. And I managed to put a double L in Savile Row above. My bad!

  10. This one's on my list to try, so yes, I would love to be entered in the drawing!
    I'm intruiged by the concept and am curious to see how it will translate on my skin. Whether it will smell a bit, ah, 'elderly,' or whether it smells a bit elderly with a bit of a contemporary twist. I'm hopeing for the latter!

  11. I'd be interested in trying this, I find the concept interesting, though it's not one that I'm 100% sure that I would like, I don't think I've smelled anything with a similar composition/concept, so it would be informative at least!

  12. RM,

    you're in, good luck!
    It's a bit of a conundrum as it's poised between the familiar "over 45" group scent-wise, yet it has a top with intricate plot that uses modern accents. I assume on masculine skin it might be different from my own, which tends to highlight sweeter elements (such as the tonka and patchouli).
    The basic skeleton is that of a classic aromatic fougere. Masterful, though I don't know if artistic is the specific term we should apply due to the specific mapped-out concept. Hmmm...

  13. A,

    I'm sure you have smelled MANY with the same frame of reference olfactorily-speaking. It's the story that is so different. And yet amidst it all Bertrand managed to show himself through a very typical formula of an aromatic fougere.

  14. Forgot to say that you're in the drawing of course!

  15. The way you describe it in your review makes me imagine a nowadays gentleman with inner style from the past, or concepts of being, but what really amazes me is the composition of Sartorial! I mean, Ozonic Effect, metallic Effect, I have not smelled that I know Gurgum Wood... and finally the honey and old wood effects all mixed with patchouli, Myrrh, Cardamom.. and so and so on, I would love to try this scent and would love see my brother's reaction.

  16. VL,

    you're not far off! It's a delicate balance between old and new. The ingredients (or "notes" more like it) are intriguing: surprisingly enough they give an abstract citrusy-soapy smell on top like aftershave. The patchouli and lavender are the core of the fragrance. It's nice to wear and I believe will be more enjoyed by women than by men (at least men below the 45 threshold)

  17. I have not tried this but I have read many good reviews. I'm intrigued by the concept of the taylors, irons, steam... but I'm not very sure if a fougère is what I would expect to smell in a taylor's workroom.
    However, ozone and leather seem more descriptive of a place like that.

  18. Isa,

    it's a nice fragrance, it smells good. The question is whether the audience responds in the way anticipated. The "story" is a bit far fetched, if I say so myself (and mind you, I'm not behind an oval desk making the decisions for them), I think it might be better if one focused on the smell itself. Too many "stories" and I think the industry is going wayward.
    Love your description of what a tailor's would smell like, though!

  19. Each time I visit Perfume Shrime I am reminded how similar our tatses in art and perfume are, Elena. I might have chosen the photo of Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy in Far From The Madding Crowd! *LOL*

  20. You might tempt me into asking you to finally do a guest post, P!

    Hope you're very well :-)

  21. Aurumgirl13:40

    My husband wears this fragrance, though I picked it out for him because it's a fragrance a friend of mine sells in her shop. She'd sold out of it and had one bottle left--it smelled like nothing else out there.

    It's polished, gorgeous, and free of the overwhelming tendency towards the Axe sprays that seem to pervade almost all men's scents these days. If that makes this an "old grandfather" perfume, well then, so be it. My husband tells me many women want to know what he's wearing, though. Betcha no one asks the man who wears the "young guy" stuff what they've got on.

  22. Aurumgirl ,

    polished is a great way to describe it.
    I for one am all for old, barbershop retro fragrances which our grandfathers wore. Not everyone does, but they're both nostalgic and elegant in their own right.


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